Ethiopian plane crashes off Lebanon
| Friday, 01.29.2010, 09:53 PM

A local memorial service for victims of the Ethiopian airliner crash in Lebanon will be held on Sunday, Jan. 31, 4 p.m. at the Islamic Center of America, 19500 Ford Road in Dearborn –313.663.1222.

BEIRUT — Rescuers continued their search Thursday for the victims and black boxes of an Ethiopian airliner that crashed off the Lebanese coast three days earlier.

Father (C) and relatives of Hassan Tajeddin, a victim of the crashed Ethiopian Airlines plane, mourn during his son's funeral at Hanawei village, southern Lebanon, January 26, 2010. The pilot of an Ethiopian airliner that crashed off the Lebanese coast did not respond to a request to change direction before contact was cut, the Lebanese transport minister said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

A search operation was still underway on a 35-square-kilometer area around the crash site just south of Beirut, an army spokesman told AFP.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 crashed into the Mediterranean minutes after takeoff from Beirut at 2:37 a.m. during a raging thunderstorm on Monday. The Boeing 737-800, bound for Addis Ababa, had 90 passengers and crew on board. All are feared dead.

UPI reported Thursday night that 26 bodies had been recovered.

Health Minister Mohammed Jawad Khalifeh on Wednesday confirmed six Ethiopians and six Lebanese had been identified among the first 14 bodies found, including those of two toddlers who had been on board the fated flight.

Khalifeh said authorities in Addis Ababa were sending DNA samples from families of the Ethiopian passengers to assist in identifying the victims.

Mystery continues to shroud the circumstances surrounding the crash, and Lebanese officials have downplayed sabotage and cautioned against pinning blame on the pilot.

There are conflicting reports as to whether the jet exploded while still airbound or after it had hit the water, and officials have said there will be no answers to what caused the crash until the black boxes are found.

The flight data recorder was located about 4,300 feet under water but had not yet been recovered, the Lebanese army said Thursday.

Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi said the pilot, who had 20 years of experience and was familiar with the Boeing 737-800, began to follow instructions from the Beirut airport control tower to avoid the storm.

But the plane took a turn the other way and flew into the weather, Aridi said.

"To say there was pilot error is pure speculation," Aridi told AFP, echoing similar comments by the defense ministry.

"The control tower attempted to redirect him but lost contact," he added. "No one knows what happened in the plane. The black boxes will provide the answers."

Experts have said that extreme turbulence or wind shear may have caused the pilot to lose control of the plane.

They have suggested that the aircraft could have flown into cumulonimbus thunder clouds, which can be dangerous for aircraft, or could have experienced technical failure.

A defense ministry official told AFP two boats from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) as well as a U.S. navy destroyer — the USS Ramage — and a civilian boat from Cyprus were using sonar equipment to locate the wreckage.

Lebanese troops also continued to comb the coastline for any debris.

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoun Misfin met Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and other officials on Wednesday to discuss the tragedy.

"As you know, we are in the first phase of research and recovery," Misfin said after meeting his Lebanese counterpart Ali Shami.

"We have not yet reached the phase of investigation and we do not know the cause of this accident," he added.

"Rather, we are focusing on the recovery of the remains of the aircraft and those on board and, if possible, to see if there is a chance of any survivors.

"It is premature to say who is responsible for this accident. It is premature and not helpful, particularly for the families of those who were on board, to put out speculation."

The flight's seven crew members and 23 of its passengers were Ethiopians employed in Lebanon, many as domestic workers, who were flying home to see their families.

Lebanese nationals comprised 54 of the passengers, most of them Shi'a from southern Lebanon.

Also among the passengers was Marla Sanchez Pietton, wife of France's ambassador to Lebanon. At least one local man may have been on the flight.

-AFP and UPI

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