By Rod Nickel
EDMONTON, Alberta (Reuters) – A newlywed couple that had traveled to Iran to get married were among the 63 Canadians killed when their Ukrainian Airlines flight crashed early on Wednesday, according to friends and community leaders in the western Canadian city of Edmonton that was home to 30 victims.
The plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran, killing all 176 people on board in a crash that intelligence sources said was likely caused by a technical malfunction. It had been heading for the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
Arash Pourzarabi, 26, and Pouneh Gourji, 25, who were graduate students in computer science at the University of Alberta, had gone to Iran for their wedding, said Reza Akbari, president of the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton.
They were on the plane with four members of their wedding party and 24 other Iranian-Canadians from Edmonton, Akbari said.
“Oh God, I can’t believe this,” Akbari told Reuters. “It’s shocking to the whole community.”
Borna Ghotbi, a close friend of the newlyweds since they were all undergraduates at Tehran’s Sharif University, said their wedding took place three days ago.
Another couple, Siavash Ghafouri Azar and Sara Mamani, had also just married in Iran, according to a Montreal university professor who taught Azar. The couple, both engineers, had just bought a house in a Montreal suburb.
Alvand Sadeghi, 30, a talented pianist who played for guests at his 2018 wedding, had moved to Toronto last April to join his wife, a family friend told Reuters. Both Sadeghi and his wife, Negar Borghei, were killed in the crash along with his sister and her daughter.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said 138 people on the plane were connecting to a flight to Canada.
“All had so much potential, so much life ahead of them,” Trudeau told reporters, adding Canada expected to have a role in the crash investigation.
The disaster was the largest recent loss of life among Canadians since an Air India flight blew up in 1985 over the Atlantic Ocean, killing 268 Canadians.
Flags flew at half-staff across Canada, including at the federal Parliament building in Ottawa.
In Edmonton, dozens of people huddled in front of the Alberta legislature in frigid -16 Celsius (3.2 F) temperatures to remember the dead. Mourners wept and hugged, lighting small tealight candles in the darkness to weigh down printout photos of loved ones.
“By being here, I’m giving this message that we want to know what happened,” said engineering student Ali Azimi, whose professor was killed. “It’s important for the world to know what happened.”
The flight was a popular transit route for Canadians traveling to Iran, in the absence of direct flights, and carried many students and academics heading home from the holidays. Canada broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012.
‘EVERYONE HAS BEEN CRYING’
University of Alberta President David Turpin said at least 10 members of the university community had died, including students, faculty and alumni.
“This is a grave loss,” he told reporters. “Words simply cannot express the grief that we are feeling on campus.”
Among the victims was Mojgan Daneshmand, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Alberta, “a brilliant, brilliant lady, very smart,” the Heritage Society’s Akbari said.
Her husband, Pedram Mousavi, a professor of mechanical engineering at the same college, and the couple’s two daughters, also died in the crash.
Mousavi was “like a father,” student Hossein Saghlatoon said.
The pair had traveled to Iran with daughters Daria and Dorina, aged 14 and 10, to visit elderly parents, Saghlatoon said.
“Everyone has been crying since last night. It’s a huge loss and the void is not going to be filled by anyone or anything,” Saghlatoon said.
The Toronto District School Board said a number of students and their family members had been killed in the crash, while the school board for York region, north of Toronto, said its schools had been “directly affected.”
According to a 2016 census, around 210,000 of Canada’s 38 million inhabitants are of Iranian descent.
(Reporting by Denise Paglinawan, Anna Mehler Paperny, Moira Warburton, Allison Martell in Toronto and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Writing by Amran Abocar; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)