The widow of the captain of a Ukrainian passenger jet that crashed in Iran said she had urged her husband not to fly the plane because of security fears in their final conversation.
Katerina Gaponenko told Sky News that she and Volodymyr, who have two young daughters, had expected the flight from Kiev to Tehran and back to be cancelled given the escalating tensions between the US and Iran.
When it was not, she said she felt very worried.
She recalled their final conversation on the day he left Ukraine.
She said: “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.”
A highly-professional, highly-regarded pilot, with many years of experience, Mr Gaponenko did not want to let his passengers down.
He flew the Boeing 737 from Kiev to Tehran on 7 January.
The captain was due to pilot the aircraft home the following morning, even though by that point Iran had fired a barrage of ballistic missiles at US targets across the border in Iraq to avenge the killing in a US drone strike of the top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
His wife said the departure time for Ukraine International Airline Flight 752 was delayed by an hour – she did not know why.
When it finally took off, the jet was only airborne for less than two minutes, before it became engulfed in flames and came crashing down to earth.
All 176 passengers and crew were killed, including her husband.
Mrs Gaponenko is certain that something happened to the aircraft beyond her husband’s control such as a terrorist attack or a missile. She dismissed Iranian claims of a technical failure on board.
“I am sure it was an explosion – it was possibly an act of terrorism,” she told Sky News.
“It was an illegal deed by a third party.”
She said she did not understand why the Ukrainian authorities had allowed the flight to take place given the security situation in Iran at that time.
“This flight was planned in early December when there was nothing to be concerned about in Tehran,” the widow said.
“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 was talking as she visited a makeshift shrine at Kiev airport for her husband and 10 other Ukrainians – mainly crew – who were also killed in the crash.
She picked up a portrait of Mr Gaponenko and kissed it, shaking with emotion.
The widow said the tragedy was worst for the couple’s daughters, aged 11 and six.
“They don’t understand why it happened. 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,” she said.
Describing her husband, she said: “I am proud of him…with his huge experience of work…the highest qualification. My husband deserves only the best opinion about him.”
She said any claim that an error by the crew might have been a factor were wrong.
“No. No. The main (most likely) reason is an act of terrorism,” she said.