BBC NEWS – 25/01/10
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 fell into the sea after taking off in stormy weather.
At least 21 bodies have been found, and the airline’s chief executive said there was no word of survivors.
Most of those on board were Lebanese or Ethiopian. There were also two Britons.
AT THE SCENE
Natalia Antelava, Beirut airport
Many relatives are crying, devastated. A woman is telling us she’s refusing to believe her husband is dead, and yet hopes are fading very fast. Officials are saying it is very unlikely anyone managed to survive this crash.
Nevertheless they’re still calling their efforts a rescue operation. They’re still trying to look for possible survivors and also wreckage which could point to why this happened.
The weather has been really harsh. The plane took off in a storm and it’s been raining ever since. The sea is rough, and rescuers are saying it’s making their efforts that much more difficult.
The UK Foreign Office said one of the Britons had dual nationality.
The other passengers included citizens of Turkey, France, Russia, Canada, Syria and Iraq, Ethiopian Airlines said in a statement on its website.
Among them was the wife of the French ambassador in Beirut, Marla Pietton.
Some of the foreign passengers are reported to be of Lebanese origin.
The plane, a Boeing 737-800, was carrying 82 passengers, including small children, and eight crew, Ethiopian Airlines said. This model can seat 189 passengers.
It disappeared from radar screens some five minutes after take-off in stormy weather at about 0200 local time, near the village of Naameh, about 3.5km (2 miles) from the coast.
‘Flash in the sky’
Helicopters and naval ships are searching the crash site. It is still being described as a rescue operation, although officials say it is unlikely anyone will be found.
The United Nations peacekeeping operation in Lebanon has sent three ships and two helicopters, and a British RAF helicopter is also involved.
Lebanese soldiers are also combing nearby beaches, where pieces of the plane and debris including passenger seats, a fire extinguisher and bottles of medicine have washed up.
State-owned carrier flying to 56 destinations
Operates only Boeing aircraft
First crash since 1996, when hijacked plane ditched into sea off Comoros
Good safety record, considered an exception among African airlines
The cause of the crash was not immediately clear, but the plane took off in a heavy rainstorm.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said foul play was not suspected.
“As of now, a sabotage act is unlikely. The investigation will uncover the cause,” he said.
“The weather conditions are terrible, but rescue efforts are still under way.”
A witness , Abdel Mahdi Salaneh, told the BBC he saw the plane fall into the sea in flames.
“We saw a flash in the sky,” he said. “We saw a flash over the sea and it was the plane falling. The weather was really bad, it was all thunder and rain.”
The BBC’s Will Ross in Nairobi says the crash is likely to invite comparisons with the Kenya Airways crash in Cameroon in 2007, in which 114 people died.
Both incidents involved Boeing 737-800 aircraft taking off in bad weather.
Relatives of the passengers, some of them sobbing, have gathered in the airport’s VIP lounge.
A tearful Andree Qusayfi told the Associated Press that his brother, 35-year-old Ziadh, had left for Ethiopia for work for a computer company.
“We begged him to postpone his flight because of the storm,” he said. “But he insisted on going because he had work appointments.”
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, parliament speaker Nabih Berri and other officials arrived to comfort families.
Mr Hariri declared a day of mourning, and closed schools and government offices.
Ethiopia and Lebanon share close business ties, and thousands of Ethiopians are employed as domestic helpers in Lebanon.
Ethiopian Airlines operates a regular flight between Addis Ababa and Beirut.
Our correspondent says that along with South African and Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines is widely considered to be among sub-Saharan Africa’s best operators.
And on a continent with a history of national airlines folding often due to reckless financial mismanagement, he says, Ethiopian Airlines is expanding its fleet and was the first African airline to order the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
It has also just announced the purchase of another 10 737-800s, at a cost of $750m.
Its last major 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.
One hundred and twenty-three of the 175 people on board were killed.