EDITOR’S NOTE: Community leaders initially believed that 27 people with Edmonton connections died in the plane crash. However, they and Global News, have confirmed 13. We have updated this story to reflect the new information.
EDITOR’S NOTE: On Jan. 10, the Canadian government updated the number of Canadians killed in the Jan. 8 Ukraine International Airlines crash in Iran from 63 to 57.
Intelligence from multiple sources indicates an Iranian missile downed the Ukraine International Airlines flight that crashed near Tehran on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday afternoon.
He said the strike might have been unintentional, but the news “will undoubtedly come as a further shock to the families who are already grieving in the face of this unspeakable tragedy.”
The crash killed all on board, including 138 people who were headed to Canada. At least 63 people on the plane were Canadians — and at lest 13 had connections to Edmonton.
“It is scary. It is very scary,” said Reza Akbari, president of the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton, about the news the plane was likely shot down.
“When I put myself in the shoes of the family, it’s a huge difference. It changes the whole scenario of who is responsible for this.”
Akbari emphasized the heritage society has no political or religious affiliations and is focused on helping the families of the victims. That said, he stressed families, friends and all Canadians need to know what happened.
“Everybody deserves to know the truth,” he said, adding he hopes the black box data from the plane is shared with agencies who have the capacity to analyze the information and provide a report on what happened.
“We’re talking of death of brilliant people, kids — regardless of their education level, regardless of their age — they’re human beings.”
Iran has said it will not give the black box to Boeing, which made the plane, or the United States. The devices — which are not actually black as the name suggests, but bright orange so they’re easier to find in the event of a crash — contain flight data recorders.
Legally, Iran has no obligation to hand over the devices. However, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules state the country is required to produce a preliminary report stating the basic facts within 30 days.
“The family and friends of those people, Canadians — they have a right to know what happened there. And what was the reason behind this,” Akbari said.
Many of the victims from Edmonton had connections to the University of Alberta, seen as one of the top research universities in the country for engineering, energy and environment programs.
Edmonton has around 4,300 people of Iranian origin, according to a 2016 Statistics Canada census. Akbari estimates the local Iranian community is actually closer to 5,000 people, and up to 6,000 when international students are included.
While high tensions between the U.S. and Iran in the wake of the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general are likely connected to the incident, Trudeau said a full investigation is required to establish exactly what happened. Akbari agrees.
The plane crash unfolded mere hours after Iran sent missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Iran’s military quickly disputed any suggestion that the plane had been hit by a missile, insisting the incident was related to a mechanical issue.
Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization has denied the allegations of the plane being shot down, calling them “illogical rumours,” according to state-run news.
While devastating for those immediately affected, Akbari said the tragedy has also been challenging for other members of the Persian community — himself included.
“It’s been very challenging — a difficult moment emotionally,” he said, adding he’s never experienced anything like this.
Akbari said the society members have been working non-stop since the news of the crash broke, informing families of what happened and listening to their stories in return – something Akbari said the volunteer group never expected to do.
Exhausted and headed home at 3 a.m. Thursday, he said they reflected on the events of the past two days.
“At the time when we’re leaving their office, we were just like, ‘We never thought when we come as a volunteer to help a cultural organization, will never thought there would be a day that we spend his many hours and hearing about the stories of people who lost their life in the tragedy.
“And certainly, we feel that obligation to serve our community and I think that’s absolutely right things to do – it’s just been certainly difficult.”
The focus now is on honouring the dead. A memorial service is being held on Sunday, Jan. 12 at the Saville Community Sports Centre (11610 65 Ave.) Doors open at 2 p.m. and the memorial service is from 3 to 5 p.m.
– With files from The Associated Press, Reuters and Global News’ Kerri Breen and Rachael D’Amore