100 days after, the families of Flight 752 victims refuse to be forgotten

One hundred days after his wife and nine-year-old daughter, along with 174 other passengers on Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, died in a ball of fire in the clear night sky over Tehran, Hamed Esmaeilion still wakes up at night tormented by questions.

'I can't forget these things, I can't. Every night ... we have nightmares' — Hamed Esmaeilion

Iran admitted it mistakenly shot down Flight 752 after it took off in Tehran on Jan. 8. (Associated Press)

One hundred days after his wife and nine-year-old daughter — along with the 174 other passengers on Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 — died in a ball of fire in the clear night sky over Tehran, Hamed Esmaeilion still wakes up at night tormented by questions.

"[I am] still devastated, still seeking justice, still seeking truth to understand what happened that night, why they left the sky over Iran open on that fateful night, why they shot two missiles at a commercial airplane, why they robbed the deceased people on the ground," Esmaeilion told Radio Canada International.

Esmaeilion, the interim spokesperson for the association representing the families of the Canadians who died on the flight from Tehran to Kyiv on Jan. 8, said he never got back his wife's ring or his daughter's wristband and struggled in his native Iran to repatriate their bodies for burial in Canada.

"I can't forget these things, I can't," Esmaeilion said in a phone interview from his home in Toronto. "Every night — not just me, all the family members — we have nightmares and during the day we are just thinking about them and we don't want this to be forgotten."

Hamed Esmaeilion lost his wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and their nine-year-old daughter Reera in the downing of Flight 752. (Supplied)

The victims' families in Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Ukraine and Afghanistan held a live vigil on Instagram on Thursday to mark 100 days since the doomed flight was brought down by at least one Iranian surface-to-air missile shortly after takeoff from the Imam Khomeini International Airport. The crash killed all 176 people on board, including 55 Canadians.

Canadian officials pledged Thursday to be "relentless" in their pursuit of justice for the victims and their families.

"On behalf of the government of Canada, we extend our deepest condolences to the families grieving this terrible tragedy. We grieve with you," Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Minister of Transport Marc Garneau said in a joint statement.

"This tragedy touched all Canadians. As we solemnly remember the victims of this crime, we will be relentless in the pursuit of justice for them and their families."

In a separate statement, the governments of Canada, Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom vowed to "advocate for full accountability, transparency, justice, compensation and a full, independent and transparent investigation, to help families seek closure as they continue to grieve."

"We continue to call on Iran to allow for the black boxes to be downloaded and analyzed in a facility with the capability to do so without delay, as stipulated by Article 13 of the Convention on Civil Aviation and as Iran committed to doing," Syrine Khoury, Champagne's spokesperson, said in an email.

Pandemic delays investigation

Last week, Canada and the other countries that make up the International Coordination and Response Group for the victims of Flight PS752 asked Iran to delay the much-anticipated downloading and analysis of flight recorders recovered from the wreckage.

Hassan Rezaeifar, the head of the Iranian investigation team, told CBC News he had invited representatives from eight countries to travel to a laboratory in Europe to start the process, but had to postpone because of the travel restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kathy Fox, chair of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), said countries want their own representatives to attend the examination of the flight recorders in person.

"As such, the download and analysis of the recorders should be delayed until conditions improve enough to allow for safe travel," she said in a statement last week. "At this point, it is not possible to predict when that might happen."

'Taking those criminals to justice'

Esmaeilion said families of the victims brought up the issue of the delay in the investigation in their teleconference conversations with veteran Liberal politician and former Public Safety minister Ralph Goodale on Tuesday and Wednesday. Goodale has been appointed special adviser to the federal government on Flight 752.

"Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, they had to stop the investigation or postpone it for some time, but they assured us again that they are serious about making the Iranians accountable and taking those criminals to justice," Esmaeilion said.

Unlike Canada's TSB, which is an independent organization, the Iranian Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau is not an independent arms-length organization and falls under the authority of the Iranian civil aviation agency, he said.

It is working closely with the Iranian military and government authorities, Esmaeilion said.

"The point is Iran tries to put the ball in other countries' court as if to show that they want to cooperate and the other countries don't," he said. "But it's not right, because for sixty days before COVID-19 Iran had the chance to hand over the black boxes but they didn't."

Iranian officials could not be reached for comment.


Levon Sevunts

Radio Canada International

Levon Sevunts is a reporter/producer for Radio Canada International. Born and raised in Armenia, he immigrated to Canada in 1992. As a print and broadcast journalist he has covered major stories in the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Darfur, the Sahara and the High Arctic, as well as his home of Montreal.

With files from Ashley Burke