An Ethiopian Airlines plane with 90 people on board crashed into the sea shortly after taking off from Beirut in stormy weather early on Monday. The airline’s chief executive said there was no word of survivors.
The Boeing 737-800, heading for the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, disappeared off the radar about five minutes after taking off at 2:37 am local time (0037 GMT) during a thunder storm and heavy rain.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman ruled out foul play.
“As of now, a sabotage act is unlikely. The investigation will uncover the cause,” Suleiman told a news conference.
Fourteen bodies have so far been recovered near the crash site three-and-a-half km (two miles) west of the coastal village of Na’ameh. Eighty-three passengers and seven crew were on the flight, Transport Minister Ghazi al-Aridi said at the airport.
Marla Pietton, wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon Denis Pietton, was one of those aboard, the French embassy said.
Besides Pietton, the passenger list included 54 Lebanese, 22 Ethiopian and two British nationals, according to airline officials. Other nationals included a French Canadian, a Russian, an Iraqi and a Syrian.
‘Ball of fire’
As the Lebanese government declared a day of mourning, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri visited the airport to meet distraught relatives waiting for news.
Some of the family members were angry that the plane was allowed to take off in bad weather. Heavy rains and storms have caused flooding and damage in some parts of the country over the past few days.
“They should have delayed the flight for an hour or two to protect the passengers. There had been strong lightning bolts and we hear of lighting strikes at planes especially during take-offs,” a relative of one of the passengers told a local television station.
Meanwhile, FRANCE 24’s Lucy Fielder reported from Beirut that witnesses saw “a ball of fire descending into the sea.”
Fielder said a “massive rescue operation” was underway, as Lebanese army patrol boats and helicopters searched a small area off Na’ameh, 10 km (six miles) south of Beirut.
The military spokesman for UN peacekeepers in Lebanon, Colonel Diego Fulco, said two ships from its maritime task force were at the crash site and a third was on its way. Two UN helicopters were also at the scene, he said.
According to a Lebanese defence ministry official, the US has offered a P-3 aircraft to assist in the search operation, and the French organisation responsible for technical investigation of civil aviation accidents was assisting in the probe.
An unusual accident for Ethiopian Airlines
State-owned Ethiopian Airlines has positioned itself as a major player in international air traffic in Africa and has recently expanded its Asian network.
It has regular flights to Lebanon, catering to business clients and the hundreds of Ethiopians who work there as domestic helpers.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, David Learmount, aviation expert and an editor at Flight International, a magazine on the industry, expressed his surprise at the events.
“Ethiopian Airlines has, until this, been absolutely a beacon of light,” he said. “It’s got an exceptional safety record.”
Learmount also noted that the plane that went down was “from the latest version of the 737 series”, making the crash even more unusual. “We have a first-class airline and a first-class airplane, and there’s been an accident,” he said.
The last major incident involving Ethiopian Airlines was in November 1996 when 125 of the 175 passengers and crew died after a hijacked Boeing 767 crashed into the sea off the Comoros Islands.
The airline’s website carries this statement: “Ethiopian Airlines regrets to confirm the unfortunate accident of ET-409 which took place shortly after departure from Beirut International Airport today January 25, 2010.”
It added that an investigative team had already arrived at the scene.
The airline company supplied the following numbers for people seeking additional information about the crash: +251 11 517 8766, +251 91 150 1248, +251 11 517 8028, +251 11 517 8054, +251 11 517 8025, +251 11 517 8030, +251 91 125 5577, +251 91 120 3412 or the Ethiopian Airlines toll free number: +251 11 662 0062
(Source: France 24)