Ethiopia: Mourning Nation, Grieving World

Last Sunday, March 10, 2019, began as an ordinary day for Yammani Geleta, a 57-year-old farmer and father of six living in Tulu Fara wereda, a border village between Amhara and Oromia regional states.

Being a Sunday, he woke up early in the morning and went to church, returning to have breakfast with his family before he embarked upon his daily chores.

Around 9:00am that morning, he was herding his cattle on a grazing plot when he heard a loud explosion from a nearby field.

"I couldn't guess what it was," he told Fortune. "I started to look around trying to figure out what the explosion was but could only contemplate that the area was bombed!"

Leaving his cattle behind he joined a crowd that was rushing toward the north of his farmstead where the explosion was heard.

"I heard some of them saying that an aircraft had crashed close to our village," he said. "I didn't believe it until I reached the crash site."

Racing the four kilometres or so from his home, Yammani and the others reached the site where Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, a Boeing 737 Max 8 had crashed. The group of locals first noticed a smoldering deep hole where the aircraft had crashed nose first.

By the time Yammani arrived in the area, other locals had already gathered and were weeping and mourning.

"The plane was buried in a deep hole where it fell," he said. "There was no fire burning and bellowing, just puffs of smoke were visible."

The plane, one of five Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft in the Ethiopian Airlines fleet, had taken off from Bole International Airport just a few minutes earlier on its scheduled flight to Nairobi, Kenya. On board were 149 passengers from 35 different countries, the pilot, the co-pilot and crew members.

One of them was Elsabet Minwyelet, a 29-year-old flight attendant who died on board Flight 302, leaving behind her husband, Beyihe Demessie, and a 10-month old son. The round trip flights to Nairobi were her favourite as she could return home on the same day to spend time with her young baby. It was not to happen on that fateful day as no one survived the crash.

The 120-million-dollar Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft, the Chicago-based manufacturer's bestselling model, is one of 30 aircraft that Ethiopian Airlines has ordered. Five of these aircraft have already been delivered, with the crashed plane being the penultimate delivery in the lineup. Boeing has already supplied 350 of this model to 54 operators around the world out of nearly 5,000 booked orders.

Flight 302 took off at 8:38am under the command of the experienced captain Yared Getachew and his co-pilot Ahmed Nur. While captain Yared had logged 8,000 hours of flight time as captain, of which 1,500 hours are on the 737 Max; the first officer had flown 200 hours.

On the morning of the accident, the aircraft had flown in from Johannesburg, South Africa, and had only logged a total of 1,200 hours since its delivery in November 2018.

About four minutes into its departure, the Captain reported to air traffic controllers that he had lost control of the plane and that the control panel had gone dark.

The 29-year-old pilot, born in Kenya to an Ethiopian father and a Kenyan mother, Rayan Shapi (MD), was told by controllers to return to Bole Airport.

"The plane faced a problem at 8:44am, then went off radar," Tewolde Gebremariam, CEO of Ethiopian Airlines Group, told journalists on the afternoon of the crash.

The plane, which crashed within six minutes of takeoff, was flying at a speed of 700Km an hour and started to stall at 8,000ft of elevation, a height that is 12.5 times higher than the top of the tallest skyscraper in the city that is under construction, the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia's headquarters.

On its way down, the plane nosedived, plowed into the earth and buried its wreckage in a 16-meter deep hole - equal in height to a five-floor building.

"When we arrived at the scene approximately 20 minutes later from the time when we first heard the explosion, we could only see fragmented parts of the plane and pieces of human bodies and fresh blood," said Yammani. "We saw no sign of living people."

As the plane was fully loaded with fuel, it exploded and fragmented upon crashing, igniting the aircraft and scattering debris over a wide area.

"After a little while, four helicopters landed in the area, followed by firefighter trucks and emergency ambulances," he told Fortune.

Once the emergency personnel arrived, Yammani and the other residents were ordered to vacate the area.

"The plane crashed on an empty field," said Yammani. "As it was still early in the morning and a Sunday, there weren't that many people around."

The crash claimed the life of all those who were onboard. Maygenet Worku, a UN Staffer, was one of them.

A mother of two, Maygenet was travelling to Nairobi for the U.N. Environment Assembly. Her husband, Eyasu Teshome, drove her to the airport that morning, fretting that she would miss her flight as they were delayed leaving their home.

They reached the airport on time, and she made it onboard the fateful Flight 302. Eyasu, tearful and stricken with grief and emotions, was unable to continue the interview with Fortune.

He was among over 100 mourners transported by Ethiopian Airlines to the accident site last Thursday. The crash site is in Tulu Fara wereda, a village located approximately 40Km from Modjo town. Access to the site is through a rough road that requires four-wheel drive vehicles.

Ahead of the arrival of the mourning families, a group of local youth had erected a tent and a wooden totem adorned with flowers near the crash site. Within the cordoned off area of the accident, excavators were digging up the site to collect what remains of the aircraft.

Families started arriving around 11:30am, transported by motor pools, buses and coaster buses of the airline. At their arrival, the families began weeping, crying and calling out the names of their deceased loved ones.

Some were down on their knees, beating their chest and voicing cries of sorrow and grief. Two of the mourners collapsed and were treated by nurses who had arrived with the group.

The captain's father, inconsolable in his anguish, joined the other mourners moaning and calling out his son's name.

"My son, the one I love the most, has been taken away from me," mourned Getachew Tessema (MD), a retired dentist and father of six.

Some mourners gathered soil from the site to keep as mementos. As the area was cordoned off, the staff of the airline filled plastic bottles with soil from the crash area and hand them to the families.

Two Israelis, Moshe Biton and his son Sahar Biton, were standing aloof, discontented after they found out that there were no remains to be claimed of passengers aboard the flight.

The father and son were there to claim the remains of Shimon Daniel Reem, a security consultant, who was travelling to Nairobi on a business trip. He had left behind his wife and five children, the youngest just two years old.

His brother Moshe arrived in the country on the same day after he learned of the incident from his sister-in-law. He was at the site to collect the remains of his brother to fulfill Jewish tradition of burying them and sitting shiva.

"When we asked for his remains, we were told that they couldn't identify them," Sahar told Fortune.

The father and son along with an Israeli forensic investigation team have been at the site for several consecutive days asking permission to be involved in the DNA examination process and to identify Shimon.

"It seems that they are in a hurry to collect all the stuff and close up the site," complains Sahar. "There is a hangar full of remains at Bole Airport, and they denied us access."

Other families were asking for the construction of a memorial graveyard at the crash site. Leul Shafi, brother of one of the deceased, Sintayehu, 27, a senior instructor at the Motor & Engineering Company of Ethiopia (MOENCO), is one of them. His brother was travelling to Nairobi for a week-long training facilitated by his employer.

"We expect a monument in the area," said Leul.

The families of victims are in grief, joined by the entire world. Most of the world media, leaders and airlines across the globe have expressed their deep sorrows.

No aircraft accident has ever brought the world at this level, where the media, nations, aviators, regulators, leaders and airlines all aligned in the same sense of loss, according to Yohanatan Menkir, CEO of AeroRead Aviation Media Group.

"Ultimately, the aviation world has become united behind Flight 302," he said.

Most countries have also taken actions to ground their own Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft. China was the first to ground the planes following the Ethiopian crash, which is the second accident involving the same aircraft model in just five months. Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea shortly after departing from Jakarta last October, killing all 189 people on board.

Other countries followed China in grounding the plane, including Ethiopia, the European Union and Canada, and are not allowing the aircraft to fly over their air space. The United States reluctantly followed suit days later.

The decision to ground the aircraft model by as many as 60 countries and airline operators was consequential.

Aviation industry experts like Jason Rabinowitz, a researcher, data analyst and writer about the industry and travel, feels the decision of these countries in grounding the plane was unprecedented.

"To my knowledge, the decision of multiple airlines to ground a specific aircraft without an airworthiness directive felt unprecedented," he said.

On the next day following the accident, Boeing's stock prices fell by 13.5pc, the most it had fallen since the 9/11 attack in New York.

Boeing, which has been insistent that the planes are safe to fly, finally was forced to accept the grounding of the aircraft last Thursday.

Dennis Muilenburg, president, chief executive and chairman of Boeing, has also issued a statement.

"We're doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this doesn't happen again," he said.

Ethiopian Airlines has a good record in aviation safety. In its 74-year history of service, it has had only three crashes, the last in January 2010. A flight scheduled from Beirut to Addis Abeba, a Boeing 737-800 aircraft, crashed in the Mediterranean Sea a few minutes after it took off, killing all 90 passengers and crew members. This was the second of the three most deadly crashes the airline had suffered since 1945.

Although there is a wide consensus on what may have caused the latest crash, families of the victims and the aviation community are waiting for results from international investigations to reach its conclusion. The black box, flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder of the plane were found the day after the accident, and they have been sent to France for analysis. Germany, which was approached initially, declined to accept the material for examination because they could not analyse the boxes, as their systems were incompatible with Boeing software.

Mostly, industry insiders suspect that the crash could be related to a specific software installed on the aircraft called the Manoeuvring Characteristic Augmentation System (MCAS). This is an automated safety system designed to prevent the plane from stalling or losing lift. The system was previously reported as a cause of Lion Air's plane crash.

Boeing had issued a bulletin following the Lion Air crash that disclosed information regarding this software, according to a Washington Post story published on March 13, 2019. Pilots at the Ethiopian Airlines were briefed of the changes before they took their training, according to pilots Fortuneinterviewed who wanted to remain anonymous for they were not authorised to speak in public due to the ongoing investigation.

"After the crash, Boeing issued a bulletin disclosing that this line of planes, known as the 737 Max 8, was equipped with a new type of software as part of the plane's automated functions," reads the story. "Some pilots were furious that they were not told about the new software when the plane was unveiled."

While the investigations are carried on, excavators at the crash site kept digging through the area in an attempt to fully recover remains and parts of the aircraft. Yammani and other residents of Tulu Fara were also voluntarily watching the area in shifts until the investigation is done.

Still, Yammani seemed mournful.

"What would have been valuable was if we were able to manage to rescue lives of the passengers," he told Fortune.

The Airline has organised a public memorial for the victims at Holy Trinity Cathedral on Sunday, March 16, 2019. Their memories will remain cherished by their families and friends who are left with so many unanswered questions.

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