BEIRUT — The first sign of trouble was a flash of light on the horizon Monday — and then witnesses said the Boeing 737 tumbled like “fire falling down from the sky” into the stormy Mediterranean Sea.
All 90 aboard were feared dead in the pre-dawn crash. Lebanon’s leaders ruled out terrorism while investigators collected witness accounts in hopes they could provide clues.
Aviation experts cautioned it was too early to know what brought down the Ethiopian Airlines jet — particularly without the black boxes.
Many people were giving DNA samples to help identify the remains of their loved ones; one man identified his three-year-old nephew by the boy’s overalls.
“Please find my son,” pleaded Zeinab Seklawi, whose 24-year-old son, Yasser, was on Flight 409, which was headed to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
At the Government Hospital in Beirut, Red Cross workers brought in bodies covered with wool blankets as relatives gathered nearby. No survivors had been found by nightfall, and the health minister told reporters 21 bodies were recovered. Marla Pietton, wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon, was among those on board, according to the French Embassy.
A Canadian citizen was among those on board, officials said.
The Boeing 737-800 took off at about 2:30 a.m. local time in driving rain, lightening and thunder, and went down 3.5 kilometres off the coast, said Ghazi Aridi, the public works and transportation minister.
Hours after the crash, pieces of the plane and other debris were washing ashore, including a baby sandal, passenger seats, a fire extinguisher, suitcases and bottles of medicine.
“We saw fire falling down from the sky into the sea,” said Khaled Naser, a gas station attendant who saw the plane plunge into waters that had reached 64 degrees (18 degrees Celsius) by Monday afternoon.
The Lebanese army also said the plane was on fire shortly after takeoff. A defence official said some witnesses reported the plane broke up into three pieces.
Aviation safety analyst Chris Yates said reports of fire could suggest “some cataclysmic failure of one of the engines” or that a bird or debris had been sucked into the engine.
He noted that modern aircraft are built to withstand all but the foulest weather conditions.
“One wouldn’t have thought that a nasty squall in and of itself would be the prime cause of an accident like this,” said Yates, an analyst based in Manchester, England.
Still, one prominent analyst cast doubt on the accuracy of witness reports of flames.
“Eyewitnesses almost always report aircraft exploding in the sky or seeing heavy, heavy flames,” said William Voss, head of the Flight Safety Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group based in the United States.
Beirut airport is equipped with a sophisticated weather radar that flight controllers use to guide planes around the towering thunderheads and accompanying winds and lightning that can cause structural damage to airframes.
The electrically charged clouds are part of massive storms that have regularly formed off the Lebanese coastline this winter.
Takeoffs in such poor weather conditions are particularly difficult, and the controllers often assist pilots to find a way through the storm.
The Boeing 737 is considered one of the safest planes in airline service.
The jet was first introduced in the 1960s, and today is the workhorse on many short- and medium-range routes.