Search for victims, answers in Lebanon plane crash

Officials on Tuesday sought to determine why an Ethiopian airliner veered off course on take-off from Beirut before crashing at sea, as rescuers sought to recover the black boxes and victims.

Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi told Agence France-Presse the pilot of the ill-fated plane had initially followed control tower instructions before the jet suddenly went off in a different direction.

“He rogered instructions to go in one direction but then the plane deviated, and when the control tower tried to reach him they lost contact,” he said.

Aridi said the search on Tuesday was concentrated in a 35 square kilometre area off the coast just south of Beirut’s airport.

“There are no answers until we find the black boxes,” he said.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 tumbled in a ball of fire into the Mediterranean early on Monday just minutes after take-off in stormy weather.

The Boeing 737-800 bound for Addis Ababa had 90 passengers on board. All are presumed dead.

Lebanese officials have ruled out foul play and said the bad weather was likely to blame.

Experts have said that extreme turbulence or wind shear may have caused the pilot to lose control of the plane, which apparently exploded before crashing.

Captain Habib Karam, the former head of the pilots’ union for Lebanon’s national carrier, Middle East Airlines, said the pilot probably flew straight into cumulonimbus thunder clouds, which would cause him to lose control of the plane.

“If a pilot flies into this type of cloud, it’s over,” he said.

Health Minister Mohamed Jawad Khalifeh said 14 bodies and some body parts had been recovered so far by an international task force including ships from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, a US navy destroyer as well as aircraft from France and Britain.

The army said in a statement that debris from the plane, including part of the left wing, had washed up on shore.

Information Minister Tarek Mitri said salvage crews had worked through the night and hoped to make progress on Tuesday in retrieving more corpses and debris.

A senior Lebanese security official said authorities were relying on the USS Ramage, which has specialised sonar equipment, to locate the flight recorders.

“We also have divers and we are using specialised equipment that can go down as deep as 200m to 300m,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Washington and France have also sent experts to assist the Lebanese government in its probe of the crash.

Officials said there was virtually no hope of finding any survivors given the time that had elapsed, and were pinning their hope on finding the black boxes to provide answers to the tragedy.

Witnesses reported seeing a ball of fire as the plane plunged into the Mediterranean at 2.37am local time just south of the airport.

The 83 passengers comprised 54 Lebanese nationals, 23 Ethiopians, one French, one British, one Iraqi, one Syrian, one Turkish and another of as yet undetermined nationality. There were seven Ethiopian crew members.

The French passenger was identified as Marla Sanchez Pietton, wife of France’s ambassador to Lebanon. — AFP

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Jocelyne Zablit
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