Families of Iran plane crash victims facing uphill battle to recover remains

Manant Vaidya knows the tragedy of losing loved ones in an airline disaster better than almost anyone.

And in the wake of the plane crash in Iran that killed all 176 passengers on board, his heart is aching this week.

Vaidya endured the same anguish these families are now facing; he lost his parents, sister, brother-in-law and two nieces last year when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed shortly after takeoff from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

Now the Brampton, Ont., man is once again seeing news stories of entire families wiped out.

“Those families looked just like the family I lost,” he said. “It all came back to me.”

Vaidya has also lived through a logistical nightmare that the victim’s families are now starting to navigate: Trying to recover their loved one’s bodies and bring them home for funerals.

Many of those who died in this week’s crash were Muslim, and Muslims customarily must bury their loved ones as quickly as possible after death — something that proves almost impossible in a complex incident like this.

Students at the University of Toronto gathered Wednesday evening to remember those lost in the Iran plane crash. (Jayme Poisson/Twitter)

Experts also say that repatriating the bodies of Canadians killed in the crash will be hampered by heightened military tensions and the fact that Canada severed diplomatic ties with Iran years ago.

“There’s a lot of psychological trauma the families now have to endure,” said Liyakat Takim, a religious studies professor at McMaster University in Hamilton. “The trauma is just unbelievable for them.”

Takim is also feeling that trauma first-hand; he was close friends with religious pilgrimage tour leader Asghar Dhirani, who died in the crash.

“I keep thinking about his last moments … it keeps coming in my mind,” he said.

DNA testing needed

Authorities have said the bodies and remains recovered from the site of the crash have been taken to the coroner’s office for identification.

Hassan Shadkoo’s wife, Sheyda, was one of the victims. Speaking to CBC News from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport Wednesday night, he said that instead of his wife returning to him, he was headed to Tehran to retrieve her remains and be with her family.

“I wish I didn’t exist now,” he said.

Mohammad Tarbhai, a relative of crash victims Alina and Afifa Tarbhai, told CBC News that authorities need to carry out DNA testing, and he isn’t expecting their bodies to be released for at least a week.

Several members of Manant Vaidya’s family died in last year’s Ethiopian Airlines crash, including, from left, Ashka Dixit, Prerit Dixit, Kosha Vaidya and Anushka Dixit. (Pramesh Nandi/Facebook )

Vaidya’s experience shows that, in all likelihood, reclaiming the bodies of the Canadians who died won’t be a simple process.

He flew to Ethiopia after the crash last March, hoping to identify and retrieve his family’s remains from that crash site. He quickly learned that would be impossible with an ongoing investigation.

The only thing he was able to take was soil. “That’s all that was left to me,” he said.

Vaidya, who is Hindu, brought that soil to India, and was able to use it to perform end-of-life rituals.

“As long as you have the soil and you have the thoughts in your heart and mind … that is how we got the closure initially,” he said.

Two women stand in front of a memorial for the flight crew of the Ukraine International Airlines flight that crashed in Iran on Wednesday. (The Associated Press)

It wasn’t until November that he was able to return to Ethiopia to officially recover his family’s remains and bring them to India for final cremation.

Muslim families dealing with this tragedy won’t be able to observe normal customs, Takim said.

Usually, a dead person’s body would be washed and wrapped in a white shroud before prayers and a burial, he said, which would take place as soon as possible after death.

“The normal procedure would not be applicable in these cases,” said Takim, adding that a precedent does exist for longer waits for burials in extenuating circumstances, such as when a post-mortem examination is necessary.

Liyakat Takim is a professor in the department of religious studies at McMaster University. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

This whole situation is undoubtedly very traumatic for the families involved, he said. “Their loved one has not died a normal death.”

Vaidya stressed that the families of the Iran crash victims should reach out to Global Affairs Canada.

“They were very helpful,” he said.

‘A further shock to the families’

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne spoke to his Iranian counterpart earlier this week and stressed “the need for Canadian officials to be quickly granted access to Iran to provide consular services, help with identification of the deceased and take part in the investigation of the crash,” according to a readout of the call.

The readout didn’t say whether Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif agreed to Champagne’s request.

Champagne said Thursday that despite Canada’s rocky relationship with Iran, he’s been reassured that Canadian investigators will get visas to enter the country.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that intelligence now indicates the Ukrainian aircraft that crashed outside of Tehran was shot down by an Iranian missile, possibly unintentionally. Iranian officials have denied the allegation.

“We have intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence. The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile,” Trudeau said Thursday during a news conference in Ottawa.

“The news will undoubtedly come as a further shock to the families who are already grieving in the face of this unspeakable tragedy,” he said.

The crash happened just hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. soldiers, in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to order the targeted killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani.

In a report released Wednesday, the Iranian aviation authority said that it has invited “all the states involved” to join a growing team investigating the plane crash.

The organization’s initial report into the crash said a fire broke out on the Boeing aircraft immediately before it hit the ground.


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