Storm appears to have caused the crash of Ethiopian Airlines jet

A fierce storm appears to have caused the crash of an Ethiopian Airline jet that plunged in a ball of fire into the sea with 90 people on board, Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr said yesterday.

“Bad weather was apparently the cause of the crash,” Mr Murr said.

“We have ruled out foul play so far,” he added, noting that soldiers combing the Lebanese shoreline had recovered pieces of the plane.

“When there is an explosion (on board an airplane) nothing is usually left.”

A massive international search and rescue operation was hastily scrambled as Lebanese President Michel Sleiman ruled out foul play and officials played down hopes of any survivors from Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 bound for Addis Ababa.

“Up until now, we have ruled out foul play,” Mr Sleiman said.

A Lebanese security official said that by noon (9pm AEDT), 21 bodies had been pulled from the sea, including that of a child. One rescue official said that the bodies recovered were dismembered. Eight empty seats from the Boeing 737-800, as well as luggage and personal belongings, had started washing up on the Lebanese shoreline, just south of the airport. Soldiers on the beach dragged large metal chunks of the plane.

He added that Prime Minister Saad Hariri would chair an emergency ministerial meeting later Monday to assess the situation.

The plane exploded into four pieces before crashing shortly after takeoff at 2.30am. Investigators were trying to determine whether lightning had hit the jet.

A worker at a petrol station near the site said he heard an explosion and saw “a huge ball of fire” as the plane crashed into the sea. Another witness said: “It was like the whole sea lit up.”

Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi said Flight 409 had lost contact with the airport control tower shortly after takeoff and crashed into the Mediterranean 3.5km off the coastal town of Naameh, south of the airport.

“The control tower was assisting the pilot of the plane on takeoff and suddenly lost contact for no known reason,” Mr Aridi said.

The Lebanese army and navy, as well as the UN Interim Force in Lebanon and aircraft from France, Britain and the US, were assisting in the rescue.

Officials listed 83 passengers and seven crew members on board the flight. The passengers include 54 Lebanese, 22 Ethiopians, one French woman and one British national. Among the Lebanese were two children. The French passenger was identified as Marla Sanchez Pietton, wife of France’s ambassador to Lebanon, Denis Pietton.

Families of the passengers, some of them weeping uncontrollably, huddled at the VIP lounge of Beirut International Airport to await news of their loved ones.

One woman was sobbing and screaming, “Why, why?” as others fainted and had to be carried away by Red Cross volunteers.

“I know they won’t find him,” wailed one woman, referring to her husband, who was on board the flight.

Ethiopian Airlines chief executive Girma Wake said in Addis Ababa that the aircraft had been serviced on December 25 and passed inspection.

British Aviation safety analyst Chris Yates noted that modern aircraft were built to withstand all but the foulest weather. He said that reports of fire could suggest “some cataclysmic failure of one of the engines” or that something had been sucked into the engine, such as a bird or debris.

Lebanon has been lashed by storms in the past two days that have caused flooding and damage in some parts of the country.

(Sources: AP, AFP, BBC)