The widow of the captain of a Ukrainian passenger jet shot down in Iran has said she urged him not to fly the plane amid fears of war in the country.
Katerina Gaponenko said husband Volodymyr had thought his return fight from Kiev to Tehran would be cancelled as tensions in the region mounted following the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani.
But when it was scheduled to go ahead the father-of-two, who flew for Ukrainian International Airlines (UIA), told his wife he had to do it.
“I asked him: ‘Do not fly, do not do it.’ But he said: ‘We can’t backtrack, if it is not me, there is no one else. If it flies on schedule, I need to fly.’ I asked him to stay,” she told Sky News.
The captain – who had 11,000 hours flight experience – took the Boeing 737 into Iran on 7 January and was bringing it back the following day when it was shot out of the sky.
All 176 passengers and crew on board – the majority Iranians, Canadians and Ukrainians – died instantly.
Iran has now said it shot the plane down accidentally. The plane crash came several hours after the country had launched missile attacks on American air bases in neighbouring Iraq.
Brig-Gen Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the Revolutionary Guards aerospace commander, has since said the force took “full responsibility” for the tragedy.
But Ms Gaponenko said she did not understand why the Ukrainian authorities had allowed the flight – PS752 – to take place given the deteriorating security situation.
She said: “This flight was planned in early December when there was nothing to be concerned about in Tehran.
“But just before they flew, some hostilities started. We knew about America, about Iraq, we knew that there was no safety but we could not believe that the flight was not cancelled. It is a number one question. I am not interested in who is to blame. I am interested in why they [the authorities] allow this flight to continue. It was a suicide mission.”
The widow spoke as she visited a makeshift shrine at Kyiv Boryspil International Airport for her husband and 10 other Ukrainians – mainly crew – who were also killed in the crash.
The widow said the tragedy was worst for the couple’s daughters, aged 11 and six.
“They don’t understand why it happened,” she said. “They don’t understand what is waiting for them in the future. They are waiting for their dad. They still have hope that he will come back.”
UIA vice president in charge of operations Ihor Sosnovsky said that Iranian authorities should have closed the airport.
“Close the airspace and shoot as much as you like ... It was absolute irresponsibility not to close airport,” he said at a press conference on Saturday.