As the bells in Century Tower chimed, Turlington Plaza filled with the sound of somber piano music. Flowers, candles, Iranian desserts and collages of photos adorned a brick table.

Shaghayegh Esmaeili pointed to a wedding photo of an Iranian couple, her eyes puffy from tears.

“The tragic thing for these beautiful people is that they went back to Iran to celebrate their wedding,” Esmaeili said, gazing at the photo of her longtime friends from undergraduate school in Iran. They were killed in the Ukrainian jet crash that took 176 lives on Jan. 8. 

Esmaeili, a 26-year-old UF human-centered computing doctoral student, is not alone in her mourning. At least two UF students, including Esmaeili, lost loved ones in the plane crash, said Mansour Sodagari, the president of the Iranian Students Association.

Sodagari, a 34-year-old UF construction management doctoral student, said the memorial was meant to be a time for the community to mourn together. 

“The students on the plane coming back could’ve been us,” Sodagari said.

More than 40 students and community members attended the memorial held Tuesday evening hosted by the UF Iranian Students Association.

The Boeing 737, operated by Ukraine International Airlines, crashed Jan. 8 in Tehran en route to Kyiv. Nine crew members, 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, four Britons and three Germans were killed, according to Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko

With increasing tension between the U.S. and Iran after the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, senior Iranian officials initially dismissed accusations that Iran shot down the aircraft as propaganda. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard acknowledged that it shot down the plane accidentally on Saturday.

Cyrus Vanden Bosch, a 19-year-old UF computer science freshman and Iranian American, said he was just walking on campus when he came across the memorial. He said the crash impacted him because he had traveled to Iran recently.

“They shot down a plane without thinking twice,” Vanden Bosch said.     During the memorial, Gainesville resident Ziba Ahmadi chatted with Zahra Godarzi, who left Iran a year ago. Godarzi said her husband stayed home during the memorial because one of the crash victims was his former student in Iran.

“People are not happy with this government,” Godarzi said in Farsi.  “Now there are a lot of kids whose dreams will never come true.”

Contact Grethel Aguila at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GrethelAguila.