BEIRUT // An Ethiopian Airlines flight bound for Addis Abba crashed into the sea moments after take-off from Beirut early yesterday amid a storm that later hampered an international rescue effort to locate survivors and wreckage. Although Lebanese officials could not completely rule out the prospect that some of the 90 people on board survived, cold temperatures and rough seas were impeding a search and rescue mission by Lebanon's armed forces joined by United Nations peacekeepers and British and American warships in the area.
Privately, Lebanese ministers and officials held out little hope that any of the 83 passengers and seven crew might have survived after the Boeing 737 plunged into the sea, reportedly in flames. The debris field from the crash could be seen just a few kilometres from Ouzai, a southern suburb of Beirut located nearly adjacent to the airport's runways. According to a Lebanese army statement and witnesses the plane burst into flame shortly after take-off at about 2.30am yesterday amid a powerful thunderstorm that had been lashing Beirut.
"It was like the whole sea lit up," one witness told AP. In an afternoon press conference, Lebanon's defence minister, Elias Murr, reiterated an earlier statement by the president Michel Suleiman that there was no indication of sabotage or terrorism and that the crash, the first major such disaster in Lebanon's history, was probably related to the weather. The plane's "black box" of instruments that could help explain the crash had yet to be found.
"No evidence points to sabotage, and bad weather conditions were apparently the reason behind the crash," Mr Murr told reporters. "The weather undoubtedly was very bad," Lebanon's minister of information, Ghazi Aridi, told reporters at the airport. He said Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 lost contact with the airport control tower shortly after take-off and crashed into the Mediterranean Sea about 12km south of the airport.
"The control tower was assisting the pilot of the plane on take-off and suddenly lost contact for no known reason," Mr Aridi said. Throughout the morning, bereaved families of the passengers, which included at least 54 Lebanese citizens, had gathered in the VIP lounge of Beirut's airport, many hysterical with grief and furious at the decision to take-off considering the weather conditions. As the prime minister, Saad Hariri, and the speaker of parliament, Nabeh Berri, arrived to comfort the relatives, several shouted obscenities at the men, arguing that the airport should have been closed for the storm. Mr Hariri ignored the catcalls and insisted the government was doing everything in its power to hunt for survivors and recover debris.
"We are working with all the power we have to try and find missing people from this tragedy," Mr Hariri said. "We are working to find the black box that will tell us what really happened on the plane." Mr Berri referred to the crash as a tragedy that appears to have struck Lebanon's Shiite population hardest. Many of the victims appear to have hailed from villages around the southern city of Nabatiya, the heart of Mr Berri's support, and the area is known for its residents moving to Africa to make their living. Mr Berri was born to Lebanese parents in Sierra Leone and is considered the leader of Lebanon's huge expatriate Shiite community.
The uncle of 34-year-old Ali Tajideen, who was en route to his family business in Angola, was inconsolable about his fate, repeating, "Yesterday I said goodbye to him, today I welcome him to God. God be with you, Ali, God be with you." Hiyam Safaa, 60, refused to accept that her brother Anaas was dead. "He has a very important business in Angola and three children," she cried repeatedly. "Who has heard anything? Where is my brother?"
Among those on board was Marla Sanchez Pietton, the wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon, Denis Pietton, the French Embassy said. On the beach in Ouzai, hundreds of onlookers and mourners gathered as huge warships with the UN mission searched the debris field just a few kilometres out to sea. Lebanon's Naval Commando unit arrived by midmorning to help with the search. In blue wetsuits and snorkelling gear, the commandos began pulling small bits of the plane from the ocean.
Although Lebanon had never experienced a crash of this magnitude, the commandos had deployed to help search for survivors when a Lebanese charter plane crashed off the coast of Cote D'Ivore in 2003, the only foreign deployment of the Lebanese military in history. "This is worse because it's at home," said one commando before he waded into the surf yesterday. firstname.lastname@example.org