Lebanese and international rescue services widened their search today for the victims and missing flight recorders of an Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed in the sea shortly after takeoff from Beirut.
Ships including a US naval vessel and European and UN peacekeeping helicopters searched through the night for the wreckage of the Boeing 737-800 that plunged into the Mediterranean in a ball of fire yesterday.
Ninety people, mostly Lebanese and Ethiopians, were on board Flight ET409 headed to Addis Ababa before it disappeared off the radar five minutes after takeoff.
Lebanese officials said 14 bodies, including those of two toddlers, had been recovered so far. They said an earlier total they gave of 24 was incorrect.
The plane had apparently broken up in the air before plunging into the sea and Lebanon has ruled out terrorism as the reason for the crash.
A Lebanese security official said recovery teams would widen their search perimeter off the Na’ameh coast, 10 km (six miles) south of the capital, after rough seas and high waves hampered them during the night.
“They need to pinpoint the location of the wreckage and then launch a dive there,” the official said, to try and find the data recorders that would give a clearer picture of what went wrong. Many relatives were angry the plane had been allowed to take off in bad weather.
Information Minister Tareq Mitri, speaking after meeting ministers and security officials late yesterday, said there had been no reason to stop the plane taking off.
“Other planes landed and took off after and before it. There is no reason why the airport authorities should not have allowed it to take off,” he told reporters.
Ethiopian Airlines CEO Girma Wake said the 8-year-old plane last underwent a maintenance check on December 25 and no technical problems were found.
Most of the Lebanese passengers, 54 in total, were Shi’ites from the south with business interests in Africa. Black flags were draped on poles in a main thoroughfare of Tyre.
Open mourning salons sprung up in Nabatiyeh, Tyre and surrounding villages to mourn the victims. “The black dawn: Plane of death drowns Lebanon in sorrow”, the headline from Lebanese daily as-Safir read.
Ethiopian Airlines has regular flights to Lebanon, catering for business clients and the thousands of Ethiopians who work there as domestic helpers. Some passengers had been en route to Angola and other African countries.
The last incident involving Ethiopian Airlines was in November 1996 when 125 of the 175 passengers and crew died after a hijacked Boeing 767 crashed off the Comoros Islands.