A passenger jet crashed just after takeoff outside of Tehran, Iran today, killing all 168 people on board. The plane took a nose dive into the ground, shattering the plane into flaming pieces.
Witnesses say they saw the tail of the plane on fire while still in the air. "Then, I saw the plane crashing nose-down. It hit the ground causing a big explosion. The impact shook the ground like an earthquake. Then, plane pieces were scattered all over the agricultural fields," Ali Akbar Hashemi told the Associated Press by phone.
The impact created a deep trench in the field, which was littered with smoking wreckage and body parts The wreckage was strewn over a 200-yard area. A large chunk of a wing was visible in footage of the scene, but much of the wreckage appeared to be in small shreds.
The Caspian Airlines jet was headed to the Armenian capital of Yerevan this morning when it went down 16 minutes after takeoff. Most of the 153 passengers were Iranian, many of them from the country's Armenian community.
Serob Karapetian, the chief of Yerevan airport's aviation security service, said the plane may have attempted an emergency landing. Investigators are looking into the witness reports of the tail being on fire.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad issued a statement expressing condolences "to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei and the families of the dead" over what he called a "heart-wrenching tragedy. Armenia's president, Serge Sarkisian, also expressed his condolences and declared Thursday a day of mourning.
The ill-fated plane was a Russian made Tupolev jet, which has had its problems over the years. Once a reliable aircraft, in recent years it has gone largely unmodified or updated. The Soviet collapse resulted in the sharp decline in government funding for aircraft spare parts manufacturers and for the aircraft manufactures themselves, and many airlines fell behind in maintenance programs for the planes.
Caspian Airlines is a joint venture between Russia and Iran, and its fleet is made up of Tupolevs. Two other Caspian Tupolevs have crashed -- in 2002 and again in 2006.
Iran's airlines have long been plagued by maintenance problems, in part because Iranian carriers are chronically cashed-strapped and unable to buy new planes. But Iranian officials often blame U.S. sanctions that prevent it from updating American aircraft bought before the 1979 Islamic revolution and make it difficult to get European spare parts or planes as well. They are forced to turn to Russia, which does not take part in the sanctions.
Watch video from the crash scene: