Military plane crashes into Tehran flats, leaving 120 dead

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The Independent Online

A military aircraft loaded with Iranian journalists ploughed into the bottom of a Tehran apartment block shortly after take-off, killing all 94 on board and about 32 people on the ground.

Witnesses near the scene described how the plane hurtled through the air in flames before crashing into the building with an enormous explosion yesterday. The C-130 was carrying journalists and specialist observers on their way to watch military manoeuvres in the south of the country. Just minutes after leaving Mehrabad airport, located in a densely populated district in the south-west of the capital, the pilot reported technical difficulties but was unable to return.

The 10-storey apartment block is one of several in the Towhid housing compound run by the airforce for its own personnel. The lower floors of the block were totally destroyed by the fire, and neighbouring buildings were also burnt and had their windows shattered by the blast. After the crash, thousands of people gathered around the compound trying to get in, but were repelled by riot police armed with batons.

"Somebody shouted 'fire' and we looked up to see a plane screaming through the air with flames streaming behind it. When it crashed there was a terrifying noise and everybody in the street ran towards the fire," said Mohammed Jafar Peyghami, standing outside his café a few hundred metres from the crash. "The police had to barricade the block because there were so many people outside trying to get in. Some of them wanted to loot the abandoned blocks."

Witnesses including Mr Peyghami said the plane had barrelled into the communal garage under the apartment block, exploding upon impact and igniting the building's gas system. Others said the plane struck higher in the building.

"My workshop shook so hard I thought there was an earthquake and ran outside," said Reza Sayed, a machine-parts maker. "I ran the two hundred metres over here and tried to help, but there was a huge fire. When it went out it looked like the bits of the plane and the passengers and everything else had just melted into each other and into the cars that were parked under the building. You couldn't even tell that it had been an aeroplane."

Fire officials told state television that both the main and reserve fuel compartments had been full when the plane crashed, causing a massive explosion. Some reports said people trapped in upper floors of the block had thrown themselves from the windows, terrified of being enveloped by the flames. Debris rained down over the area, contributing to the damage and increasing the death toll.

Other witnesses at the crash site said the charred remains of a propeller and wing were still visible in front of the building. Journalists were barred from entering the compound and those who had gained access before the authorities established a cordon were ejected by riot police. Their digital photographs were deleted.

Record levels of pollution in Tehran had closed schools and kept people off the streets yesterday, which meant more people than usual - many of them children - were in the block of flats. The narrow, crowded streets in southern Tehran and the thousands of curious onlookers drawn to the site complicated rescue efforts.

Iran has a poor record of flight safety. Early last year, an Iranian commercial aircraft came down in Dubai; and in 2003 another military transporter crashed in southern Iran, killing nearly 300 people on board. Because of US sanctions on Iran's aviation industry, it is difficult to replace ageing planes in both the military and civilian fleets. New additions are often purchased from former Soviet states.

"This is the third crash I can remember in this district," Mr Peyghami said. "The houses here are all very close together and it is very dangerous."

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