TORONTO, ONT – The worst had passed, it seemed, and the United States and Iran no longer appeared poised at the edge of war.
“All is well!” President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday night, days after a U.S. drone strike killed Iran’s most powerful general, and Iran, after a barrage of missiles, had signaled it was stepping back from further escalation.
But 27 seconds before Trump’s tweet, commercial flight trackers had lost contact with a Ukrainian International Airlines jet that had just taken off from Tehran’s main airport. On board were 176 people, including 138 passengers on their way to Canada, 57 Canadian citizens and 11 Ukrainians. The plane, which never made a mayday call, slammed moments later into the ground.
Everyone on board died. They were students, newlyweds, doctors and parents. The youngest was a 1-year-old girl, Kurdia Molani, who was flying back home with her parents to the Toronto suburb of Ajax.
By late Thursday, Western leaders said that Iran had most likely shot down the jetliner with a surface-to-air missile — probably by accident. The loss of so many lives transformed the U.S.-Iran confrontation, which had seemed to conclude with limited bloodshed.
Instead, what had begun with a drone attack on Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s motorcade at the Baghdad airport had suddenly rippled outward until dozens of Iranian-Canadians, dozens of Iranian students studying in Canada, were dead.
“The community is overwhelmed with mourning and sadness,” said Payman Parseyan, a prominent Iranian-Canadian in western Canada, counting through the names of the friends he had lost. There was Pedram Mousavi and his wife Mojgan Daneshmand, both of them engineering professors, and their two daughters, Daria and Dorina Mousavi. There was Dr. Shekoufeh Choupannejad, an obstetrician-gynecologist, and her two daughters, Saba and Sara Saadat. It seemed impossible.
Trump is deeply unpopular in Canada, and some here blamed him for creating the standoff that appeared to have led to the disaster.
“A president, bruised by impeachment, orders a dramatic assassination, and five days later a plane lands in Toronto, with 138 empty seats, taxiing up to a terminal filled with sobbing loved ones," Maclean's magazine columnist Scott Gilmore wrote of the connecting flight that arrived in Canada almost empty.
But Parseyan wasn’t so sure.
“It takes two to tango,” he said. “It's not hard to see the downing as a result of the escalation between the two countries. However, Iran is responsible for its own military defense equipment. While it has the right to defend itself, as it should to protect its own people, it should also have the responsibility with that right to make sure their defensive systems aren't targeting civilian aircraft."
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has at times had a rocky relationship with Trump, was careful not to say the U.S. strike had lead to what happened in Tehran.
“I think it is too soon to be drawing conclusions or assigning blame or responsibility in whatever proportions," he told reporters. On Friday, he met privately with families of some of the victims .
Even some who regularly criticize Trump said the White House couldn't be held responsible.
“Trump’s assassination of Soleimani may have been foolish and adventurist but I can’t see how he can be blamed in any way for the shooting down of the airline,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. “This sad incident speaks to the incompetence of and lack of discipline in the Iranian army.”
Ukraine was also mourning: It lost two passengers and a crew of nine in the crash. For days, airline workers, relatives of victims and ordinary people have been bringing flowers to a make-shift memorial for the crew – nine framed portraits surrounded by candles - in the Kyiv airport.
Vladyslav Perez, who was friends with a flight attendant killed in the crash, Ihor Matkov, said Matkov loved working in the air and was deeply proud of his job.
“It’s unfair that such an amazing person passed so early in life,” he said. “I’m in shock that Iran hasn’t closed its airspace.”
Many in Canada simply struggled to make sense of the disaster.
“If something like this happened as an accident, it’s much easier to take in than when you hear that maybe it got shot,” said Nina Saeidpour, a Calgary real estate agent whose friend Kasra Saati was among the victims. “We're just trying to figure out what happened."
Ukrainian flights out of Tehran are often full of Iranian-Canadians and Iranian students studying in Canada, particularly after the long holiday break. Going back and forth via Kyiv is one of the most affordable routes between the two countries, and avoids stopovers in the United States, which is difficult for most Iranians.
At least 17 Canadian universities have confirmed that they lost students, professors or researchers.
Until the crash, the killing of Soleimani had seemed to end fairly quietly — at least for the U.S. A stampede at the general’s funeral, jammed with mourners, had left 56 people dead and Iranian missile strikes against Iraqi bases housing American troops had injured no one. Iran appeared to have carefully calibrated the missile attacks to avoid causing further U.S. retaliation, giving early warning to its Iraqi allies to avoid casualties.
Iran has “concluded proportionate measures,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted after the missile barrage.
Canada is one of America’s oldest and closest allies, but Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto, noted Thursday that Trump has said nothing about Canada's tragedy.
“The unconcern certainly comes across,” he said. “Not a word of sympathy.”
By Friday afternoon, there were no indications Trump had mentioned the Canadian victims.
Instead, in a campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, on Thursday, he told crowds that Soleimani’s killing was “American justice,” while deriding Democrats for questioning his decision to carry out the attack without first consulting Congress.
He also noted that America had been ready to retaliate if Iran’s missile attacks had caused any casualties.
“You have no idea,” he told the cheering crowds. “A lot of people got very lucky.”
Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this report.