An Ethiopian Airlines
plane carrying 90 people caught fire and crashed into the sea minutes
after taking off from Beirut early Monday, setting off a frantic search
as passenger seats, baby sandals and other debris washed ashore. At
least 34 bodies were recovered.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known. Lebanon
has seen stormy weather since Sunday night, with crackling thunder,
lightning and rain. The plane went down in darkness and crashed into
water that reached just 64 Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius) by afternoon.
President Michel Suleiman said terrorism was not suspected in the crash
of Flight 409, which was headed for the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
"Sabotage is ruled out as of now," he said.
relatives streamed into Beirut's airport to wait for news on their
loved ones. One woman dropped to her knees in tears; another cried out,
"Where is my son?"
Andree Qusayfi said his 35-year-old brother,
Ziadh, was traveling to Ethiopia for his job at a computer company, but
was planning to return to Lebanon for good soon.
begged him to postpone his flight because of the storm," Qusayfi said,
his eyes red from crying. "But he insisted on going because he had work
Zeinab Seklawi said her 24-year-old son Yasser called her as he was boarding.
told him, 'God be with you,' and I went to sleep," Seklawi said.
"Please find my son. I know he's alive and wouldn't leave me."
dead include several children, according to a Lebanese defense official
who asked that his name not be used because he is not authorized to
speak to publicly.
The Boeing 737-800 took off around 2:30 a.m.
(7:30 p.m. EST) and went down 2 miles (3.5 kilometers) off the coast,
said Ghazi Aridi, the public works and transportation minister. The
Lebanese army said in a statement the plane was on fire shortly after
"The weather undoubtedly was very bad," Aridi told reporters at the airport.
of the plane and debris were washing ashore in the hours after the
crash, including passenger seats, a baby sandal, a fire extinguisher
and bottles of medicine.
The wife of Denis Pietton, the French ambassador to Lebanon, was on the plane, according to the French embassy.
and naval ships were scrambled for a rescue effort as huge waves
slammed into the shore. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a
day of mourning and closed schools and government offices.
statement from the defense ministry in Cyprus, which sent
reinforcements to help in the search, said 34 bodies have been
recovered so far.
Ethiopian Airlines' CEO Girma Wake told
journalists in Addis Ababa that he had no information on the fate of
those on board or about the cause of the crash. He said the aircraft
had been serviced on Dec. 25 and passed inspection.
He also said
the plane had been leased in September from CIT Aerospace. Calls to CIT
Aerospace were not immediately returned Monday.
The plane was
carrying 90 people, including 83 passengers and 7 crew, Lebanese
officials said. 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, a French
woman and two Britons of Lebanese origin.
Ethiopian Airlines reported that there were 82 passengers and eight crew; the discrepancy could not immediately be explained.
Boeing 737 is considered one of the safest planes in airline service.
The jet was first introduced in the 1960s, and today is the workhorse
on many short- and medium-range routes.
Still, over the past 15
years it was involved in a series of incidents and crashes linked to a
valve in the rudder assembly. This reportedly would malfunction and
cause the rudder to turn independently of the pilot's commands.
problem was considered resolved after operators of older Boeing 737s
were ordered to carry out inspections and upgrades of the critical
rudder control systems.
Sidney Dekker, a professor of flight
safety at the School of Aviation at Lund University in Sweden, said the
rudder problem has been corrected by the manufacturer and that he'd be
"hugely surprised" if it had anything to do with the crash.
himself a 737 pilot, said that if reports of an engine fire proved to
be correct, the accident could have possibly resulted from a loss of
control at relatively low altitude.
He noted that the 737's
engines were overpowered in order to fulfill single-engine takeoff
performance requirements. "This tends to produce a turning movement
toward the dead engine in the case of the loss of a powerplant at
takeoff," he said.
Poor visibility in low cloud combined with high winds may have contributed to the problem faced by the pilots, he said.
February 2009, a Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane crashed short of
the runway at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, killing nine passengers and
crew. Dutch investigators say the plane crashed because of a false
reading from a faulty altimeter.
The state-owned Ethiopian
Airlines announced last week that it signed an agreement with Boeing to
buy 10 more of the 737-800s at an estimated $767 million. The order
will expand the airline's fleet from the 36 aircraft it has now — not
including the 737-800 that crashed Monday.
analyst Chris Yates said it was far too early to say what caused the
crash, but he noted that modern aircraft are built to withstand all but
the foulest weather conditions.
"One wouldn't have thought that a
nasty squall in and of itself would be the prime cause of an accident
like this," said Yates, an analyst based in Manchester, England. He
noted 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.
Ethiopian Airlines has long had a
reputation for high-quality service compared to other African airlines,
with two notable crashes in more than 20 years.
Ethiopian Airlines jet crash-landed off the Comoros Islands in the
Indian Ocean when it ran out of fuel in November 1996, killing 126 of
the 175 people aboard. In September 1988, an Ethiopian Airlines jet
crashed shortly after taking off when it ran into a flock of birds,
killing 31 of the 104 people on board.
Boeing said it is
coordinating with the US National Transportation Safety Board to
assist Lebanese authorities in the investigation.