Authorities scramble to find remains, clues into Ethiopian Airlines tragedy
Africa / 11 March 2019, 11:50am / Solan Kolli and Chris Stein
Tulu Fara - Ethiopia and China grounded fleets of Boeing 737 MAX 8 after the crash of a new passenger jet that killed all 157 people on board as the search resumed Monday for bodies and clues into the disaster.
Ethiopia's parliament declared Monday a day of mourning over the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines jet, which ploughed into a field some 60 kilometres (40 miles) east of Addis Ababa on Sunday -- just six minutes after taking off from the capital on a flight to Nairobi.
One witness told AFP the plane was on fire before crashing, and swerving erratically.
As inhabitants of the remote, rural part of Ethiopia looked on from behind a security cordon, inspectors early Monday searched the site for plane debris, passenger belongings and human remains.
The single-aisle Boeing left a deep, black crater at the impact site, which was being dug up with a mechanical excavator.
Ethiopian Airlines, Africa's largest carrier, said Monday it was grounding its remaining fleet of six 737 MAX 8 Boeings "until further notice".
China, too, ordered domestic airlines to suspend commercial operation of the Boeing 737 MAX 8. The country had eight nationals among the 157 people -- 149 passengers and eight crew -- aboard the ill-fated flight ET 302.
Boeing has described the MAX series as its fastest-selling airplane ever, with more than 4 500 orders placed by July 2018 from 99 customers worldwide.
State-owned Ethiopian Airlines had ordered 30.
The plane that crashed Sunday was new, delivered to Ethiopia on November 15, the carrier said.
It is the same type as the Indonesian Lion Air jet that crashed in October, 13 minutes after takeoff from Jakarta, killing all 189 people from 35 countries on board.
At least 22 UN staff were on the flight, many headed for an annual assembly of the UN Environment Programme which opened under a dark cloud in Nairobi Monday.
Delegates arrived with the UN flag flying at half-mast, hugging and comforting one another as they wondered who among the staff may have been on the plane.
Plane on fire
"Let us reflect that our colleagues were willing to travel and to work far from their homes and loved ones to make the world a better place to live," UN Habitat head Maimunah Sharif told some of those gathered.
Among the dead were staff from the World Food Programme, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, and Food and Agriculture Organisation, the agencies said.
Nairobi hosts the global headquarters of UNEP and UN Habitat, and is the regional seat of several other UN agencies.
"Deeply saddened by the news this morning of the plane crash in Ethiopia, claiming the lives of all on board," tweeted UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
One witness, Tegegn Dechasa, told AFP at the site that "the plane was already on fire when it crashed to the ground. The crash caused a big explosion."
Another, farmer Sisay Gemechu, said: "The plane seemed to be aiming to land at a nearby level open field, but crashed before reaching there."
Ethiopian Airlines said the pilot had been given clearance to turn around after flagging difficulties to airport authorities.
"A committee comprising of Ethiopian Airlines, Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority and Ethiopian Transport Authority has been set up to carry out the investigations," the airline said.
"Once the... deceased are identified, their bodies will be delivered to their families and loved ones."
Details of the passengers have started to emerge.
Among them was Cedric Asiavugwa, a Kenyan third-year student at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, who had been due to graduate in the spring and was visiting home, the university said.
Kenya had the highest death toll with 32, according to the airline.
Canada followed with 18 victims, including Nigerian-born author Pius Adesanmi, who directed the Institute of African Studies at Carleton University.
The airline said Ethiopia had nine victims, then Italy, China, and the United States with eight each. Britain and France each had seven people on board, Egypt six, and Germany five -- though the breakdown was not final.
France's government later said there were eight French victims.
Slovak MP Anton Hrnko was among the bereaved.
"It is with deep sorrow that I announce that my dear wife, Blanka, son Martin and daughter Michala, died in the air disaster in Addis Ababa this morning," he wrote on Facebook.
The US National Transportation Safety Board said it would send investigators to assist, and Canada deployed consular officials to Addis Ababa.
African Union commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat spoke of "utter shock and immense sadness", while Mahboub Maalim, executive secretary of the IGAD East African bloc, said the region and the world were in mourning.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his British counterpart Theresa May both described the news as "devastating".
Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam said the plane had flown in from Johannesburg earlier Sunday, spent three hours in Addis and was "despatched with no remark", meaning no problems were flagged.