Tuesday 19 March 2019

Passenger plane crashes just after take-off killing all 157 on board

Pilot had sent out a distress call

Families around globe gripped by grief

Shock: A woman talks on the phone as she awaits news of family members at Addis Ababa international airport yesterday after the crash. Photo: AP
Shock: A woman talks on the phone as she awaits news of family members at Addis Ababa international airport yesterday after the crash. Photo: AP
A man carries a piece of debris on his head at the crash site. Photo: Getty
Devastation: The CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, Tewolde GebreMariam, looks at the wreckage of the plane. Photos: AP

Duncan Miriri in Nairobi

An Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet bound for Nairobi crashed minutes after take-off yesterday, killing all 157 people on board and raising questions about the safety of the Boeing 737 MAX 8, a new model that also crashed in Indonesia in October.

The flight left Bole Airport in Addis Ababa at 8.38am, before losing contact with the control tower at 8.44am.

"The pilot mentioned that he had difficulties and that he wanted to return," Ethiopian Airlines chief executive Tewolde GebreMariam told a news conference.

"There are no survivors," the airline tweeted alongside a picture of Mr GebreMariam holding up a piece of debris inside a large crater at the crash site.

Passengers from 33 countries were aboard, said Mr GebreMariam. The dead included one Irish man and Kenyan, Ethiopian, American, Canadian, French, Chinese, Egyptian, Swedish, British, Dutch, Indian, Slovakian, Austrian, Swedish, Russian, Moroccan, Spanish, Polish, and Israeli citizens.

Around the world, families were gripped by grief.

Weeping relatives begged for information at airports in Nairobi and Addis Ababa.

"We're just waiting for my mum. We're just hoping she took a different flight or was delayed. She's not picking up her phone," said Wendy Otieno, clutching her phone and crying.

At the Addis Ababa airport, a woman called a mobile number in vain. "Where are you, my son?" she said, in tears.

Others cried as they approached the terminal.

Henom Esayas, whose sister's Nigerian husband was killed, told The Associated Press they were startled when a stranger picked up their frantic calls to his mobile phone, told them he had found it in the debris and promptly switched it off.

The aircraft, a 737 MAX 8, is the same model that crashed into the Java Sea shortly after take-off from Jakarta on October 29, killing all 189 people on board the Lion Air flight.

The cause of that crash is still under investigation.

A senior US government official said it was too early to tell if there was any direct connection between the two accidents, but that reviewing the issue would be among the top priorities for investigators.

A preliminary report into the October crash focused on airline maintenance and training and technical questions about the response of a Boeing anti-stall system to a recently replaced sensor.

Boeing is working on a software patch on the system, while insisting cockpit procedures were already in place to deal safely with problems the Lion Air crew experienced.

The 737 is the world's best-selling modern passenger aircraft and is seen as one of the industry's most reliable.

Ethiopian's new aircraft had no recorded technical problems and the pilot had an "excellent" flying record, Mr GebreMariam said.

"We received the airplane on November 15, 2018. It has flown more than 1,200 hours. It had flown from Johannesburg earlier this morning," he said.

Flight ET 302, registration number ET-AVJ, crashed near the town of Bishoftu, 62km south-east of the capital Addis Ababa, with 149 passengers and eight crew aboard, the airline said.

The flight had unstable vertical speed after take-off, the flight tracking website Flightradar24 tweeted.

Data released by the Sweden-based service suggested the aircraft had climbed almost 1,000 feet after taking off from Addis Ababa, a hot and high-altitude airport whose thinner air requires extra effort from an aircraft's engines. It dipped about 450 feet before rapidly climbing another 900 feet until the point where satellite tracking data was lost.

The aircraft had shattered into many pieces and was severely burnt, a Reuters reporter at the scene of the crash said. Clothing and personal effects were scattered widely over the field where the plane came down.

There was no immediate indication of what caused the crash and safety experts said it was too early to speculate, adding most accidents are caused by a cocktail of factors.

Nineteen staff from at least five UN and affiliated organisations died, including the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN refugee agency UNHCR, the International Telecommunications Union, the UN Environment Programme, the World Bank and the International Organisation on Migration, the IOM said.

Michael Ryan, from Co Clare, was among the WFP workers to die.

Seven Britons were killed, as were three members of a Slovakian MP's family.

Anton Hrnko, an MP for the nationalist Slovak National Party, said he was "in deep grief" to announce that his wife Blanka, daughter Michala and son Martin were among the dead.

Paolo Dieci, a founder of an aid group that works with Unicef in Africa, was also reported as among the dead.

Irish Independent

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