People gather on Jan. 10, 2020, at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg for a vigil organized by the University of Manitoba Iranian Students Association (UMISA) for the Winnipeg victims killed in a plane crash in Iran. Victims from left to right are: Forough Khadem, Bahareh Hajesfandiari (41) Anisa Sadeghi (10) and Mohammad Sadeghi, Amir Hossein Ghorbani (21), Farzaneh Naderi (38) and Noojan Sadr (11), Amirhossien Ghasemi (32), Farhad Niknam (44), and Mojgan Daneshmand, Pedram Mousavi, Daria Mousavi (14) and Dorina Mousavi (9). THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

‘Out of this mess:’ A look at some of the lives lost in the downing of Flight PS752

Pedram Mousavi sat with the other passengers on Ukrainian International Airlines Flight PS752 as it remained parked on the tarmac south of Iran’s capital, Tehran, about an hour behind schedule in the pre-dawn darkness.

It was Jan. 8, 2020.

Amid escalating tensions between the United States and Iran, Mousavi texted a friend: “I just want to get out of this mess.”

Mousavi, a University of Alberta engineering professor, his wife Mojgan Daneshmand, also an engineering prof, and their daughters Daria, 14, and Dorina, 9, were among 167 passengers and nine crew members on the flight.

Shortly before takeoff, Sheyda Shadkhoo of Markham, Ont., phoned her husband to say she was nervous about flying. Everything will be fine, a tearful Hassan Shadkhoo later recalled reassuring his wife of 10 years.

There were at least 55 Canadians on board and more than 100 passengers had ties to Canada – students, business people, academics, newlyweds and families — from British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba.

The Boeing 737-800 was to fly over Turkey, then the Black Sea and into Kyiv, with many catching a connecting flight for the long haul to Canada.

It was supposed to leave at 5:15 a.m., but it was past 6 a.m. and the jet was still on the ground at Imam Khomeini International Airport, waiting to roar down Runway 29R. Back home in Canada, it was the evening of Jan 7. In Toronto, it was 9:30 p.m.

It was a scheduled flight in a very unsettled time.

The plane had arrived just after midnight and was prepping for the return leg at about 2 a.m. when Iran fired missiles at U.S. coalition bases in Iraq. The launch was in retaliation for an earlier drone strike that killed senior Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani.

Military forces were on alert but Iran did not close its airspace to civilian traffic.

Amid the usual click and clack of overhead bins, the passengers settled in. They had stories to share and memories to savour, as revealed in dozens of subsequent interviews The Canadian Press conducted with family and friends.

Arash Pourzarabi and Pouneh Gorji, married just days earlier in Iran, were returning to studies at the University of Alberta. Fareed Arasteh, a PhD student at Ottawa’s Carleton University, had also tied the knot just three days prior in Iran with fiancée Maral.

There was “Hami and Sami” – Hamidreza Setareh and Samira Bashiri — who fell in love as teens a decade earlier in Iran and had built a life together in Windsor, Ont., learning English by watching the TV sitcom “Friends.”

Many came for rituals both joyous and sombre. Pedram Jadidi had left the University of Windsor to pay respects on the first anniversary of his father’s death in Iran. Fereshteh Maleki travelled from Ottawa for her daughter’s wedding.

Montrealer Shahab Raana booked a trip back to Iran to surprise family members and posted a selfie online just before takeoff. Kasra Saati came from Calgary to be with his wife, Mehsam, and their two kids. Mehsam was in Iran to get family help with their newborn daughter.

The passengers had worries big and small. Nasim Rahmanifar was preparing for her first winter in Edmonton as a master’s student in mechanical engineering. She was constantly asking friends about the best jacket for the bone-chilling cold.

Some were there on a twist of fate. Vancouver college student Delaram Dadashnejad had booked a round trip on Lufthansa but had to cancel it due to visa delays, and rebooked on Flight 752. Roja Azadian was coming to Canada for the first time, flying with her husband until a ticket mix-up forced her to fly to Ottawa alone. He planned to be on the next flight.

There was a lot of brainpower in that cabin: dozens of students, many pursuing master’s and PhDs. Amir Moradi was in his third year at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and had written his medical school entrance exams the summer before. He was in Iran with his parents to visit family. Before he got on the plane, he texted a buddy: “See u soon.”

Masoumeh Ghavi, 30, was heading to Halifax to resume studies in computer technology at Dalhousie University. Her younger sister, 20-year-old Mahdieh, was with her; she was expected to start medical school later in the year.

Many passengers were headed back to work, in banking, dentistry, gynecology optometry, chemistry, engineering, technology and web development.

Razgar Rahimi was a member of the engineering faculty at Toronto’s Centennial College. He was flying with wife Farideh Gholami, who was seven month’s pregnant, and their three-year-old son, Jiwan. Gholami was a talented artist and had made an avocado costume for their boy the previous Halloween.

There were so many children on 752. Sophie Emami was five. Asal Ovaysi was six. Shahzad Eghbali Bazoft and Daniel Ghandchi were both eight.

Daniel’s 16-year-old sister, Dorsa, one of many teens, was with him.

Kamyar Ebnoddin Hamidi of Coquitlam, B.C., 15, loved making music and someday wanted to be a producer.

Fatemah Pasavand, 17, was returning home to North Vancouver. She had asked for a special meal when she got back and her dad, who runs a bakery, was getting it ready. Arshia Arbabbahrami was a Grade 12 student in Calgary, aiming to be a doctor, excelling in sports — track and field, swimming and diving.

They were all cinched into their seats and ready to go.

The plane’s doors closed at 5:49 a.m. and at 6:11 a.m. pilot Volodymyr Gaponenko had the bird rolling down the runway.

In three minutes, the plane was at 2,500 metres and climbing when, said Iran, a communication and technical foul-up caused the Revolutionary Guard to mistake the airliner for a hostile target. Grainy video shows two ground-to-air missiles fired 23 seconds apart, streaks of light in the dark sky.

The result, recounted later in the parlance of vectors, co-ordinates, altitudes, and time codes, remains a year later — raw, terrifying and heartbreaking.

There was a flash.

The stricken jet veered right and turned in, its flight path resembling an inverted question mark, streaking to Earth, slamming into a playground, bouncing, exploding and showering debris over the length of three football fields. There were no survivors.

The aftermath has been punctuated by finger-pointing, evasions, diplomatic bluster and a search for answers between Canada and Iran, two countries that don’t have diplomatic relations.

For surviving friends and families, there remains anger and profound sadness.

But also cherished memories of loved ones such as Noojan Sadr, who was travelling home to Winnipeg with his mom, Farzaneh Naderi.

Noojan was 11. He liked soccer and playing video games.

Like the other passengers, the G-force would push him back into his seat as the jet lumbered down the runway, faster, faster, the morning sun chasing its tail, the tarmac below slipping into a blur.

The engines howled, the wheels lifted and the 176 souls of Flight PS752 began their ascent.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said there were 57 Canadians on board.

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