In this photo released by the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), a rescue worker attends to the scene of a plane crash near the village of Jannatabad, outside the city of Qazvin, around 75 miles northwest of Tehran in Iran, Wednesday, July 15, 2009. An Iranian passenger plane carrying 168 people crashed a quarter-hour after takeoff Wednesday, smashing into a field northwest of the capital and shattering to pieces, with State television saying all on board were killed. (AP Photo/ISNA, Sina Shiri)
Investigators have recovered two black boxes belonging to a Russian-made jetliner that crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran, Iran's state radio reported Thursday.
All 168 people aboard the Caspian Airlines aircraft bound for Yerevan, Armenia, on Wednesday were killed.
The radio's report quoted chief investigator Ahmad Majidi as saying one of the two recovered boxes was damaged. It said the boxes — the plane's cockpit voice and flight data recorders — would likely be sent to the aircraft's Russian manufacturers for analysis.
It was not immediately known what caused the plane to crash, but witnesses said the plane's tail was on fire before it went down nose first, plowing a long trench into agricultural fields outside the village of Jannat Abad, and the plane was blasted to bits. Parts of the trench were up to four meters (yards) deep.
Bodies of the victims were taken in ambulances to Tehran Thursday for identification, Majidi said.
The crash was the latest in a string of air disasters in recent years that have highlighted Iran's difficulties in maintaining its aging fleet of planes. Iranian airlines, including state-run ones, are chronically strapped for cash, and maintenance has suffered, experts say.
U.S. sanctions prevent Iran from updating its 30-year-old American aircraft and make it difficult to get European spare parts or planes. The country has come to rely on Russian aircraft, many of them Soviet-era planes that are harder to get parts for since the Soviet Union's fall.
A team of Russian air accident experts was due to arrive in Iran on Friday to help in the investigation of the latest crash, civil aviation spokesman Reza Jafarzadeh told the semi-official news agency ISNA.
Majidi and Jafarzadeh said they were looking for a third black box, but it was not clear what the third unit recorded. Black boxes, built to survive crashes and intense fires, record a plane's performance, like speed and altitude, as well as communications between the cockpit crew or with air traffic controllers.
Most of the passengers were Iranians, including 42 from Iran's large ethnic Armenian community, as well as 11 members of Iran's national youth judo team.
Five Armenian citizens were among the dead, Armenia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement, along with two Georgians, including a staffer from the Caucasus nation's embassy in Yerevan.
Armenia on Thursday announced a one-day national state of mourning to mark the death of its citizens in the crash. Flags were flying at half-mast on government buildings and Armenian embassies abroad. Local radio and TV have canceled entertainment programs in a show of respect.
Iran's national airline sent a Boeing 747 to Yerevan Thursday to help take victims' relatives to Tehran.
Khristofor Sogomonian, whose father was among those killed, told The Associated Press at Yerevan's airport that "we're flying with other relatives to try to find anything and to commit his body to the soil."
Caspian Airlines' representative in Armenia, Arlen Davudian, said victims' relatives would be provided hotel rooms and transportation to the crash site.
Victims' relatives, he added, would be paid compensation of at least euro32,000 ($45,216).
"I had hoped that she was alive, but now all doubts have fallen away," said Diana Sarkisian, an Iranian national whose cousin was aboard the plane as the first leg of a trip to her husband in the United States.
At the site of the crash on Wednesday, flaming wreckage, body parts and personal items were strewn over a 200-yard (meter) area. Firefighters put out blazes from the crash, but smoke smoldered from the pit for hours after as emergency workers searched for the data recorders and other clues to the cause.
The Tu-154M jet had taken off from Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport. It crashed at 11:30 am, about 16 minutes after takeoff, outside Jannat Abad, near the city of Qazvin, around 75 miles northwest of Tehran, Jafarzadeh, the civil aviation spokesman, told state media.
Serob Karapetian, the chief of Yerevan airport's aviation security service, said the plane may have attempted an emergency landing, but reports that it caught fire in the air were "only one version." He did not elaborate. A police officer told Iran's semi-official ISNA news agency that several witnesses reported seeing the plane's tail on fire.
The Tupolev's three engines are in its tail section.
The crash is Iran's worst since February 2003, when a Russian-made Ilyushin 76 carrying members of the elite Revolutionary Guards crashed in the mountains of southeastern Iran, killing 302 people aboard. That crash was a sign of how maintenance problems have also affected Iran's military.
Caspian Airlines is an Iranian-Russian private joint venture founded in 1993. It has a fleet of Tu-154s built between 1989 and 1993. Russia produced 900 Tu-154s until production was halted in 1996.