'Bring them back:' Hundreds gather to mourn McMaster students killed in Iran plane crash

Family, friends and school faculty reflected on the lives of Iman Aghabali, Mehdi Eshaghian and Siavash Maghsoudlou Estarabadi.

“I keep walking in my house, talking to myself murmuring, ‘why did this happen,’ "

Mourners at Friday's McMaster University vigil for Iman Aghabali, Mehdi Eshaghian and Siavash Maghsoudlou Estarabadi sob as speakers reflect on the victims' lives. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

More than 300 people attended a tearful community vigil at McMaster University to remember the two engineering students and former postdoctoral fellow who died in the fatal Iran plane crash Wednesday.

Mourners wept openly as the families of Iman Aghabali and Mehdi Eshaghian called in from Iran via video chat to speak to visitors in Farsi.

Zahra Ranjbar and Javad Aghabali, mother and father of Iman, struggled to hold back tears, asking everyone to keep their son in their "thoughts and prayers." 

Zahra Ranjbar and Javad Aghabali, mother and father of Iman Aghabali, spoke to the crowd and thanked everyone for making him feel welcome. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)
Maryam Eshaghian, spoke to the crowd attending her younger brother's vigil. She struggled to hold back tears as she reflected on his life. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Pain suffocated Maryam Eshaghia, Mehdi's older sister, who choked and broke down while speaking.

Both thanked everyone for making their kin feel "welcome" and for attending the ceremony to remember their lives.

Banafsheh Rafeh, the translator at the event, was also emotional, but told the audience both sets of family members were "grief-stricken and heart broken."

Visitors, mostly dressed in black and grey, passed boxes of tissues to one another, as faculty, family and friends all spoke to remember Aghabali, Eshaghian and Siavash Maghsoudlou Estarabadi.

About 300 seats were occupied and at least 100 other people stood in a horseshoe all staring at the table lit by candles on CIBC Hall on the third floor of the campus student centre.

The university had support workers for students waiting at the back of the hall, ready to console visitors too overcome by emotion. 

Before the speeches, mourners muffled cries and sniffles during a moment of silence to remember the three victims.

Maghsoudlou Estarabadi, spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Health Sciences, focusing on the causes of preterm birth, before leaving the university in 2018.

More than 300 visitors attended the vigil to mourn the loss of Iman Aghabali, Siavash Maghsoudlou Estarabadi and Mehdi Eshaghian, all of whom had ties to McMaster University and were killed by the Iran plane crash. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Aghabali and Eshaghian were both PhD students studying engineering. 

Aghabali's work focused on hybrid vehicles while Eshaghian focused on mechanical engineering with interests in robotics.

Dr. Ali Emadi, who supervised their projects was closer to them than most. 

Students told CBC he set-up his own memorial in his engineering lab the day the school learned Aghabali and Eshaghian were on Flight PS752.

He was overwhelmed with emotion, sobbing in his seat before and after speaking in front of the crowd.

"These are the worst three days of my time at McMaster in the nine years I've been here," he said to the crowd.

"They were two of our very best PhD students."

It just doesn't matter when you lose a piece of yourself- Dr. Ali Emadi, Aghabali and Eshaghian's PhD supervisor.

While both students were destined for success and would only bolster by the reputation of a department already known for its innovation, Emadi said it's all overshadowed by their shattered dreams. 

"It just doesn't matter when you lose a piece of yourself," he said.

Vahid Mohsenzadeh, a PhD student studying civil engineering, also spoke. He knew both students and said he can't focus on anything but their deaths.

"I keep walking in my house, talking to myself murmuring, 'why did this happen,' " he said. 

Iman Aghabali was studying engineering at McMaster University and was reportedly on board the Ukrainian International Airlines plane that crashed and killed all 176 people passengers. (Facebook)

Mohsenzadeh added some levity, remembering Iman's humour, citing his love for GIFS.

"He was like a younger brother to me," Mohsenzadeh said. "I joined groups for more animations to send him, but I can't now."

He said Aghabali went back to Iran on his birthday to see his brother's newborn baby.

"I told him not to go, but he said it was his duty to go back," Mohsenzadeh told the audience.

"I wish I could try to bring them back and change their mind to go home."

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

Diego Fernando Valencia Garcia, a PhD student at McMaster called Aghabali the "best person I ever met" and also spoke of Eshaghiani's kindness.

Being sad together is better than being sad alone.-   Sania Sehatkar, student

"Mehdi was shy at first but he was the first to say hello to me," he told the audience, adding that Eshaghiani taught him how to dance.

"He would always come by and say hi and I always said 'Why are you here?' Now I wish I said 'stay.'"

'Confusion' taking toll on students

After the ceremony, visitors formed long lines for the chance to write in memorial books and look at the photos.

Students consoled each other with stiff hugs. And some relived the night of the crash.

Paria Samani, 26, an Iranian grad student studying electrical engineering, told CBC she knew at least seven of the 176 victims on the plane.

Samani and most others in the school's Iranian community were already watching the news closely after Iran fired missiles at Iraq bases housing U.S. troops.

That night on Wednesday, Aghabali and Eshaghian sent a picture together shortly after passing the gates before boarding Ukrainian International Airlines Flight PS752. The plane crashed minutes after takeoff from Iran to Ukraine.

"It was their last photo together," she said.

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)

Samani and others stayed up all night frantically refreshing webpages until more details came out. 

"It was three in the morning when we saw the list of passengers come out and that's when we knew," she said.

Officials are working through the aftermath — a scorched scene of debris and death — but say all 176 on board the plane died.

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

Iran, however, denies the accusations.

"The confusion makes everything harder," said Sania Sehatkar, 27, a PhD business student from Iran.

'Fear in their hearts'

Sania Sehatkar and Sanaz Khanali, both 27-year-old graduate students from Iran, told CBC they didn't know any of the victims, but say the Iranian community on campus is tight-knit.

"It's like losing family," Sehatkar said.

"But maybe being sad together is better than being sad alone."

Khanali broke down, because she, Sehatkar and other international students could have been on that plane.

Rescue teams work amid plane parts and debris at the crash site outside of Tehran. (AFP via Getty Images)

"We all have the same pain … we're all international students. We miss our families, they just wanted to see them and it was their right to … I wish we lived in a better world," Khanali said.

"We're all going to go back and now we have fear in our hearts because anything can happen," Sehatkar added.

McMaster University is said to be holding a vigil in its Convocation Hall on Sunday from 4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. for Hamilton's broader Iranian and Persian community.

The school 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