Unverified pictures of missile debris, supposedly from near the crash site of PS752, shared by Elicot Higgins on Twitter
Unverified pictures of missile debris, supposedly from near the crash site of PS752, shared by Elicot Higgins on Twitter Image Credit: Twitter/Elicot Higgins

Dubai: It has been two days since the deadly crash involving Ukrainian International Airline Flight PS752 that killed all 176 people aboard shortly after it took off from Tehran for Kiev.

The exact sequence of events that led to this tragic incident are still sketchy. Also unknown yet is what really caused it. What adds to the intrigue is that it occurred on a day Tehran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi air bases housing US forces, in retaliation of the killing of its general Qassem Soleimani by the US.

The Ukrainian International Airlines plane took off at 6:12 am Wednesday, after nearly an hour’s delay at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport. It gained altitude heading west, reaching nearly 8,000 feet, according to both the reports and flight-tracking data. It went down minutes later.

The major question is: Was it a crash following technical failure or was it a disaster caused by a missile hit – friendly or otherwise?

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Debris is seen from a plane crash on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2019. A Ukrainian airplane carrying at least 170 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s main airport, killing all onboard, state TV reported. (AP Photos/Mohammad Nasiri) Image Credit: AP

Iranian version

Iran insists that it could be a technical failure that caused the crash.

An initial report released by Iran's Civil Aviation Organisation said the Boeing 737-800 suffered a technical problem shortly after take-off and that it was on fire prior to impact with ground.

An image grab from footage obtained from the state-run Iran Press news agency on January 10, 2020 shows what Iran's civil aviation says is the black box of the Ukrainian airline flight that crashed near Tehran killing all 176 on board. Image Credit: AFP

'The plane, which was initially headed west to leave the airport zone, turned right following a problem and was headed back to the airport at the moment of the crash,' chief of Iran's Civil Aviation Organisation was quoted as saying.

Version by US allies

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canada had intelligence from multiple sources indicating that a Ukrainian airliner which crashed outside Tehran was mistakenly shot down by Iran.

The same was reiterated by British PM Boris Johnson. He said there is now "a body of information" that the Ukrainian Boeing 747 that crashed in Iran, killing all 176 people aboard, was brought down by an Iranian missile.

NYT verfies video

A video verified by the New York Times appears to show the moment the Ukraine plane was hit by a missile in Iran. Investigators are still working on this theory that the Boeing jet was mistakenly shot down by an Iranian missile.

A formal investigation of a plane crash as mysterious as this one could take months, if not years to conclude. Add to it the mutual hostility/mistrust of the parties involved – Iran, US and Boeing – it can be delayed further.

Tough task

It is a difficult situation for those trying to find the cause of the accident. Information is scarce, evidence can be unreliable and access to the site is impossible. However, that hasn’t prevented investigative journalists from trying to solve the mystery behind the crash.

What they are using now is their tech and investigative skills with tools available on the Internet - coupled with basic math and science skills. Their raw materials? Mostly the videos and pictures of the crash shared by many on social media.

Bellingcat, an online investigative collective of journalists, is at the forefront of collecting and explaining data related to the Iran plane crash and trying to ascertain what caused the crash, mainly through geolocation.

Here’s our pick of some of the important pieces of investigation shared on social media:

Belling the cat

Bellingcat has geolocated the newly-discovered footage showing an apparent missile strike on #PS752 to a suburb west of Tehran.

How far away was the launch site?

Christo Grozev, the winner of the 2019 European Press Prize for Investigative Journalism, explains the math he used to determine the location where the missile was fired from. He has used the known speed of the TOR-M missile and its visually perceived speed to calculate the angle relative to the trajectory of the missile. From this he had deduced that the missile could’ve been launched from a distance of 6.5km.

Follow the thread for an interesting discussion on the IRSG Secret Missile Base

Elliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat identified a new video from the tweet of Iranian Patriot, apparently taken from a moving vehicle and commented it looks like a new video of the #PS752 crash, 30 seconds before it hit the ground.

Elliot has also posted some Tor Anti-aircraft missile debris, purportedly from near the crash site, on January 9, though he admits it is near impossible to geolocate the image with any certainly.

Christo Grozev posted another video and speculated this could be showing the ascent and impact of two missiles hitting the doomed aircraft

He also observes that the flight signal was lost before it was hit.

How the video surfaced

It all started from a footage shared on a public telegram channel by someone who received the footage from a source. He has asked help in verifying the footage as he couldn’t do it himself.

The New York Times found the man who shot the video and managed to collect a high resolution video and confirmed its authenticity.

Watch the anotated version of the video of the 'apparent shoot-down' posted on YouTube by Jake Godin of Newsy and Bellingcat

Bellingcat says it has geolocated the above video to a residential area in Parand (coordinates 35.489414, 50.906917), a suburb to the west of Imam Khomeini International Airport, from which Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 (PS752) departed to Kyiv.

Iranian authorites continue to insist it was a technical snag that downed the plane. 

Meanwhile, the crash site has been cleaned using bulldozers, many have reported on social media. A CBS crew that visited the site west of Teheran on Friday found the site not cordoned off, with no security in place. However, virtually all the pieces of the plane were removed on Thursday itself. They found scavengers picking the site clean.