Ethiopian Jet Crashes, 90 Feared Dead

An Ethiopian Airlines passenger plane with 90 people on board has crashed into the Mediterranean Sea shortly after take-off from Beirut airport. Eyewitnesses say they saw a ball of fire in the sky before Addis Ababa-bound Flight ET409, which had taken off in stormy weather, fell into the sea.

The plane had been scheduled to take off at 2:10 a.m., according to the airline, but it actually left at 2:35. The flight to the capital, Addis Ababa, was scheduled to take four hours and forty minutes. The plane disappeared from radar screens some five minutes after take-off in stormy weather, near the village of Na’ameh, about 3.5 kilometers from the coast.

The plane, a Boeing 737-800, was carrying 82 passengers, including small children, and eight crew, EA said. This model can seat 189 passengers. Aridi, the transportation minister, identified the passengers as 54 Lebanese, 22 Ethiopians, one Iraqi, one Syrian, one Canadian of Lebanese origin, one Russian of Lebanese origin and two Britons of Lebanese origin. The last passenger was the wife of the French Ambassador in Beirut, Marla Peitton. The eight crew members on the flight were Ethiopian.

Helicopters and naval ships are still searching the crash site. It is still described as a search and rescue operation, although officials say it is unlikely anyone will be found. Lebanese soldiers are combing nearby beaches, where pieces of the plane and debris including passenger seats, a fire extinguisher and bottles of medicine have washed up. “We hope to find survivors, but it is unlikely,” said Health Minister Jawad Khalifeh. (Wall Street Journal)

The UN peacekeeping operation in Lebanon has sent three ships and two helicopters, and a British RAF helicopter is also involved.  A US Navy ship with advanced equipment arrived in Lebanon to aid in the night search. Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. military had deployed a guided-missile destroyer, the USS-Ramage, as well as a P-3 surveillance aircraft to help with the search and rescue efforts. In Canada, Consular officials were “providing consular assistance and support” to the Canadian passenger’s family, a Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said in an e-mail. (The Globe & Mail) A French military war plane and three other planes – two British and one Cypriot – flew from Cyprus to aid search efforts.

The airline said a 14-member team of investigators was at the scene of the accident. The team included Ethiopian Airline officials. Boeing said it was coordinating with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to assist Lebanese authorities with the inquiry.

Worried family members gathered at Beirut airport for news while the army and the UN Interim Forces in Lebanon continued to search for survivors. At the Government Hospital in Beirut, Red Cross workers brought in bodies on stretchers covered with wool blankets as relatives gathered nearby. Many people gave DNA samples to help identify the remains of their loved ones.

By nightfall, searchers had not recovered any survivors from the Mediterranean Sea, which was -18 degrees Celsius on Monday afternoon. 34 bodies have been found, including those of two toddlers.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, parliament speaker Nabih Berri and their officials arrived to comfort families. Mr. Hariri declared a day of mourning, and closed schools and government offices. A parliamentary session was canceled and a cabinet meeting was set for Monday night to follow up on the crash. Prime Minister Saad Hariri praised security forces and the Red Cross for their efforts in the aftermath of the accident.

The cause of the crash was not immediately clear, but the plane took off in a heavy rainstorm. Lebanon has been hit by heavy rain and thunder and lightning storms since Sunday night. Defense Minister Elias el-Murr said the weather “in principle” was to blame for the crash. He later told local media that there was information indicating “it was a pilot error” but did not provide further details. (Reuters) Many relatives of passengers on the plane were angry that the plane was even allowed to take off in bad weather. Poor visibility in low clouds combined with high winds may have contributed to the problem faced by the pilots trying to regain control.

Information Minister Tareq Mitri said there was no reason not to give the plane the permission to take off. “Other planes landed and took off after and before it. There was no reason why the airport authorities should not have allowed it to take off.” (Reuters) Airline CEO Girma Wake said he did not think the crew would have taken off in dangerous weather conditions. “There was bad weather. How bad it is, I will not be able to say. But, from what I see, probably it was manageable weather otherwise the crew would not have taken off,” he said. (Reuters)

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said foul play was not suspected. “As of now, a sabatoge act is unlikely,” he said at a news conference with Defense Minister Elias Murr in the city of Yarze, in east-central Lebanon. (New York Times)

Ethiopian Airline’s CEO Girma Wake told journalists in Addis Ababa that the aircraft had been serviced on Dec. 25 and passed inspection. He also said the plane had been leased in September from CIT Aerospace. The plane had been built in 2002.

Ethiopian Airlines operates a regular flight between Addis Ababa and Beirut. Along with South African and Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines is widely considered to be among sub-Saharan Africa’s best operators. Ethiopian Airlines is one of the largest airlines in Africa. It serves Europe, as well as three other continents, for a total of 56 destinations. The airline has had such a commendable safety record that some expanding airlines in Asia have lured away its pilots at a high pay.

The airline has experienced two fatal crashes since 1980. Ethiopian Airline’s last crash was in 1996, when a hijacked Nairobi-Addis Ababa plane was ditched into the sea off the Comoros Islands after running out of fuel. 123 of the 175 passengers on board that plane had died. Flight safety records indicate that there has not been a crash involving a Beirut airport since 1987.

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