'Our hearts break:' Vigils to honour McMaster students killed in Iran plane crash

Hamilton's broader Persian and Iranian community is still reeling, but locals hope the memorial ceremonies will bring people together.

Iranian Students Association and McMaster University will hold separate vigils Friday and next week

McMaster University and its Iranian Students Association both have vigils planned for Iman Aghabali, Mehdi Eshaghian and Siavash Maghsoudlou Estarabadi. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

A deafening silence filled the hallway on the second floor of McMaster's Automotive Resource Centre (MARC) as mourners gathered Thursday at a makeshift vigil for Iman Aghabali and Mehdi Eshaghian.

The building was academic home for the two PhD engineering students, whose framed pictures stood on a table, lit by candlelight and adorned with flowers, tangerines, dates and figs.

Both students died when Ukrainian International Airlines Flight PS752 crashed Wednesday, minutes after departing from Tehran's main airport to fly to Kyiv.

First responders are sorting through twisted metal and broken bodies, but say none of the 176 people on the plane survived. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday intelligence now indicates the aircraft was shot down by an Iranian missile, possibly by mistake. 

Impromptu tributes

"Hundreds of students have flooded the hallways," around the MARC tribute Jessie Park, communications officer at McMaster University told CBC.

There are at least two memorial services planned for Iman Aghabali, Mehdi Eshaghian and Siavash Maghsoudlou Estarabadi (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The memorial in the MARC is one of multiple impromptu tributes on campus and is a precursor to at least two vigils planned for Aghabali and Eshaghian.

The Iranian Students Association has a vigil planned from noon to 2 p.m. Friday in CIBC Hall on campus. 

Back in the MARC, some visitors took to the gilt-golden bordered notebooks to write about Aghabali and Eshaghian, both of which will be sent to their surviving families.

Students who visited and mourned the death of Iman Aghabali and Mehdi Eshaghian wrote in books at a makeshift memorial at McMaster University. Both books will be sent to the surviving families. (Colin Cote-Paulette/CBC)
(Colin Cote-Paulette)

Ishwar Puri, Dean of Engineering, says students are carrying "shock" and "grief" on campus today after a town hall hosted by staff.

Despite receiving an official correspondence from the school Wednesday via email, news of Aghabali and Eshaghian was already rippling throughout the school.

"We're a very tight-knit community … the Iranian-Canadian community is very large and McMaster engineering has over 140 students who were born in Iran," he says, adding it's a blow to the school on all levels.

"In my own research groups there are Iranian students and one reached out and said, 'I'm sorry I can't meet with you tomorrow, I'm very saddened by what happened.' "

Some upcoming vigils will also highlight Siavash Maghsoudlou Estarabadi, who spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Health Sciences and left the university in 2018. He, like Aghabali and Eshaghian, boarded Flight PS752.

Dr. Sarah D. McDonald, the Canada research chair of the school's obstetrics and gynecology department, told CBC Maghsoudlou Estarabadi's work was "important" and focused on what causes preterm birth.

"Siavash was a kind and thoughtful person," McDonald said.

Maghsoudlou Estarabadi joined McMaster after completing a PhD from Karolinskia Institute in Sweden and a Doctorate of Medicine from the Iran University of Medical Sciences.

Vigils are a chance for local community to come together

Hamilton's broader Persian and Iranian community is still reeling, with some 3,780 residents speaking Kurdish, Pashto or Farsi, according to the census.

"Our hearts break for Iman, Mehdi and Siavash's families, friends and loved ones. May you be comforted by the outpouring of love and support surrounding you during this incredibly difficult time," Mayor Fred Eisenberger said in a statement, adding that the flag at city hall will be at half-staff until Friday at sunset.

Adel Aghazadeh, 62, immigrated to Hamilton 25 years ago and owns Darband Kabab on Upper James Street near the Lincoln Alexander Parkway.

He says the community isn't as tight-knit as it could be due to most having to grind out long hours at work to support their families.

And that's what Aghazadeh says makes this event even more tragic.

"Everyone was mostly young and educated," he says.

Puri says international students from countries like Iran are drawn to schools in Canada due to the country's globally renowned schools and more welcoming immigration policies that offer opportunities without becoming embroiled in geopolitical conflicts.

"Certain countries still welcome Iranian students and others may not welcome them as emphatically as they may have done in the past," he says.

Iman Aghabali and Mehdi Eshaghian allegedly took a picture together while waiting to board Flight PS752 which crashed in Tehran, killing all 176 people passengers. (Submitted by Reza Safari)

Puri adds this tragedy doesn't just hurt McMaster but schools across the country.

"It's not only a loss for Iran and the Iranian-Canadian community, but for Canada because these were bright minds who were going to be engineers, who were going to provide solutions for the future, and we've lost them."

Other members of the Iranian community declined to speak to CBC News out of fear any comments related to the incident would lead to reprisal from the Iranian government.

Mehdi Eshaghian was an engineering students at the McMaster's automotive resource centre. He believed to be on Flight PS752 which crashed Wednesday. (Facebook)

But Aghazadeh says despite international conflicts or a local community that isn't as close it could be, people will show up to the vigils.

"If they have a heart, they're going to feel that way and come," he said.

McMaster University is providing resources to anyone affected by the tragic flight.

About the Author

Bobby Hristova


Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca