A Nairobi-bound Boeing 737 crashed minutes after an early-morning takeoff from Addis Ababa Sunday, killing all 149 passengers and eight crew on board, Ethiopian Airlines said as world leaders offered condolences to distraught next-of-kin.
People from 35 countries and a UN passport-holder were on board flight ET 302 which ploughed into a field 60 kilometres (37 miles) southeast of Addis Ababa, the carrier’s CEO Tewolde GebreMariam told journalists in the capital, lamenting this “very sad and tragic day.”
“We can only hope that she is not on that flight,” Peter Kimani, who had come to fetch his sister at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), told AFP after news of the disaster reached those waiting in the arrivals hall.
State-owned Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest carrier, said the ill-fated Boeing 737-800MAX had taken off at 8:38 am (0538 GMT) from Bole International Airport and “lost contact” six minutes later.
Scheduled to land in Nairobi at 10:25 am (0725 GMT), it came down near the village of Tulu Fara outside Bishoftu.
An AFP reporter said there was a massive crater at the crash site, with belongings and airplane parts scattered widely.
Rescue crews were retrieving human remains from the wreckage.
Ethiopian Airlines confirmed “there are no survivors,” adding it was too early to speculate about the cause of the crash.
Police and troops were on the scene, as well as a crash investigation team from Ethiopia’s civil aviation agency.
In the Kenyan capital, family members, friends, and colleagues of passengers waited for news at the airport.
“I am waiting for my colleague, I just hope for the best,” added Hannah, a Chinese national.
Hoping for the best
Ethiopian Airlines said Kenya had the largest number of casualties with 32, followed by Canada with 18, Ethiopia with nine, then Italy, China, and the United States with eight each.
Britain and France each had seven people on board, Egypt six, and Germany five.
Twelve countries in Africa, and 14 in Europe had citizens among the victims.
African Union commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat spoke of “utter shock and immense sadness”, while Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office tweeted it “would like to express its deepest condolences to the families of those that have lost their loved ones.”
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said he was “saddened” by the news and Mahboub Maalim, executive secretary of the IGAD East African bloc, said the region and the world were in mourning.
“I cannot seem to find words comforting enough to the families and friends of those who might have lost their lives in this tragedy,” Maalim said in a statement.
The plane’s manufacturer, US giant Boeing, said it was “deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, a 737 MAX 8 airplane.
“We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew on board and stand ready to support the Ethiopian Airlines team.”
GebreMariam said the plane, delivered to Ethiopia on November 15, had flown in from Johannesburg early Sunday, and spent three hours in Addis before it was “despatched with no remark”, meaning no problems were flagged.
It “underwent rigorous first check maintenance” on February 4, tweeted the airline, which changed its logo on Twitter to black and white from its trademark green, yellow, and red.
Asked if the pilot had made a distress call, the CEO said “the pilot mentioned that he had difficulties and he wants to return. He was given clearance” to turn around.
The senior captain, Yared Getachew, had some 8,000 flight hours under his belt.
Ethiopian and American investigators will probe the crash, said GebreMariam.
The Boeing 737-800MAX is the same type as the Indonesian Lion Air jet that crashed last October, 13 minutes after takeoff from Jakarta, killing all 189 people on board.
Loved ones waiting at JKIA were brought to the onsite Sheraton Hotel where they were debriefed and offered counselling. Journalists were not allowed inside, but could hear sobbing coming from inside.
For one family member waiting in Nairobi there was a happy ending.
Khalid Ali Abdulrahman was waiting for his son who works in Dubai and feared the worst when a security man told him the plane had crashed.
“I was shocked, but shortly after, my son contacted me and told me he is still in Addis and did not board that flight, he is waiting for the second one which has been delayed.”