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Canadian universities mourn researchers who died in Iran plane crash

Victims include 10 people linked to the University of Alberta and six at the University of Toronto.
Vigil Held In Ottawa For Victims Of Ukraine International Airlines Crash.

Residents of Ottawa held a vigil for people killed when a Ukraine Airlines jet crashed in Iran.Credit: Dave Chan/Getty

Canadian universities are mourning more than a dozen faculty members and students who died when Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 crashed in Iran on 8 January.

One hundred and seventy-six people were killed when the Boeing 737-800 crashed shortly after take off from Tehran. At least 57 victims were Canadian, and according to the country's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, 138 people on the flight were connecting to Canada.

“What happened yesterday was a tragedy, a tragedy that shocked not only Canada but the world,” Trudeau said at a news conference on 9 January, calling for a “thorough investigation” into the causes of the crash. “We have intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence. The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. This may well have been unintentional,” he said.

The Iranian government at first denied such reports. But on 11 January, the country's military announced that it had unintentionally shot down the plane. "The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake," Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said on Twitter. "Investigations continue to identify & prosecute this great tragedy & unforgivable mistake."

Across Canada, universities lowered flags to half mast and planned gatherings to honour the dead. “I want to express my heartfelt grief. Words simply cannot express the loss I know we all are feeling,” David Turpin, president and vice-chancellor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, wrote on 8 January. About 50 people attended a vigil at the Alberta Legislature Building on 8 January, lighting candles and placing photos on the steps, to remember friends and colleagues, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

‘We are all heartbroken’

University of Alberta faculty members Pedram Mousavi and Mojgan Daneshmand — both engineers — and their two young daughters were among those who died. "They were big deals," says James Hogan, a materials engineer at Alberta.

Hogan lost a graduate student, Amir Saeedinia, who was travelling from Iran to begin his PhD in Hogan's lab. "He worked very hard to create this opportunity for himself. This was just a start for him in Canada — he was coming to join the group today."

Rescue team at the crash site of a Ukrainian airline that crashed on 7 Jan 2020.

Rescue workers sift through the wreckage of a Ukrainian aeroplane that crashed in Tehran.Credit: Mazyar Asadi/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty

On 9 January, the university identified seven other community members who were listed as passengers. They include Arash Pourzarabi and Pouneh Gorji, graduate students in computer science who were returning to Canada after their wedding in Iran. Turpin said that university flags would be lowered to half mast to remember the victims, with a memorial service planned for 12 January.

“So so devastated for losing smart and kind friends Mojgan Daneshmand and Pedram Mousavi of U Alberta and their beautiful kids in yesterday’s airplane crash in Iran! Heartbroken!” wrote Peyman Servati, an electrical engineering professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, on Twitter.

The University of Toronto announced that flags at the three campuses would fly at half mast in memory of at least six students who were expected to be on the plane. "We are all heartbroken," university president Meric Gertler said in a statement.

‘Sad days’

At least five University of Windsor community members were listed as passengers, the Ontario university said in a statement, adding that a memorial service was being planned for the coming days. On 8 January, Iranian students gathered in the engineering school to remember the friends they lost, bringing flowers and dates, the Windsor Star newspaper reported.

Hamidreza Setareh Kokab had begun studying for a PhD in mechanical engineering last January in Jill Urbanic's lab. "He would have been successful in both academia and industry. We lost a bright light," says Urbanic. Kokab's wife Samira Bashiri, a biology research assistant, was also on the flight, the university said.

At Western University in London, Ontario, about 250 people gathered on 8 January to remember four students who were on the flight. And the University of Waterloo confirmed that two of its students died in the crash.

Flags at the University of Guelph were lowered to mourn two university graduate students who died in the crash: Ghanimat Azhdari of the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics, and Milad Ghasemi Ariani, from the Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies. The university said it is planning a vigil for the students on 10 January.

“Sad days,” said Statia Elliot, a marketing professor at the University of Guelph, on Twitter. “Milad had just started his PhD with us in the fall, so much hope, gone. My heart goes out to family and friends.”

Faisal Moola, an ecologist at the University of Guelph, said that it had been an “awful 48 hours for our students and faculty” at the department of geography, where Azhdari was a member of his lab. “We lost our dear friend and colleague,” he wrote on Facebook.

“The one thing that brings me a little comfort is the knowledge that Ghanimat was such a proud member of the Qashqai Indigenous tribe in Iran and spoke with such love for her people and her ancestral territories in our lab meetings and with her classmates,” Moola wrote. “She was a powerful and passionate young leader in defence of Indigenous Peoples across the planet and her life's work continues.”

Nature 577, 301-302 (2020)

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 11 January 2020: Updated to reflect Iran’s announcement it had unintentionally shot down the plane, and Canada’s latest figures on the number of its citizens who died.

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