The Boeing 737 Max-8 plane that crashed shortly after take off in Ethiopia Sunday morning—killing all 157 on board, including eight Americans—was a brand new jet and the same model as the Indonesian Lion Air plane that crashed in October.
It was still too early in the investigation to determine exactly what caused the crash, and when asked about potential sabotage, the Ethiopian Airlines CEO said, “At this stage we cannot rule out anything.”
Airline officials said the plane’s pilot made a distress call and was cleared to return to the airport in Addis Abba, moments before the plane crashed 38 miles southeast of the capital near the town of Bishoftu.
Flightradar24 tweeted that the “vertical speed was unstable after take off” on the Ethiopian Airlines flight 302. The same report was made after the Lion Air crash.
Ethiopian Airlines said those on board were from at least 35 countries, and confirmed that eight Americans, seven British nationals and 18 Canadians were among the victims. Additional victims included citizens of Italy, Kenya, Egypt, Ethiopia, China, Russia, Spain, Israel, Yemen, Togo, Somalia, India, Slovakia, Austria, Sweden, Morocco, Poland, Belgium, Indonesia, Uganda, Sudan, Serbia, Mozambique, Rwanda and Ireland. There were also four diplomats traveling on U.N. laissez-passer passports.
On Saturday, the U.S. State Department reversed an earlier alert warning Americans not to travel into or out of the Ethiopian airport on Sunday, March. 10. The alert was due to potentially dangerous protests occurring in the capital city. It was not immediately clear why the security alert was reversed.
On Sunday, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board announced on Twitter that it would be sending a specialized team to assist in the investigation. “The F.A.A. is closely monitoring developments in the Ethiopian Airlines Fight 302 crash early this morning,” according to the tweet. “We are in contact with the State Department and plan to join the NTSB in its assistance with Ethiopian civil aviation authorities to investigate the crash.”
During a press conference Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebre Mariam said the plane had arrived from Johannesburg, South Africa at 6 a.m. and had gone through normal safety checks for the 8:38 a.m. flight 302 to Nairobi. Then about six minutes after take off, the plane crashed.
Ethiopian Airlines has an excellent safety record, according to the CEO. The last accident was in 2010 when a smaller aircraft crashed into the Mediterranean Sea after taking off from Beirut, Lebanon, killing all 90 passengers and crew.
Mariam said the airline has six additional Boeing 737 Max-8 planes. Asked during the press conference if those planes had been grounded as a result of the crash, he said, “not yet.”
The Boeing 737 Max-8 was delivered to Ethiopian Airlines November 15, 2018. In October 2018, the same type of aircraft was involved in the fatal Lion Air accident that killed 189 people shortly after takeoff in Jakarta. That crash was blamed on an automatic system that did not allow pilots to raise the nose of the jet. A lawsuit against Boeing claims that the company did not provide instructions to pilots on “how to recover from a situation triggered by a failure in a sensor intended to warn of an impending aerodynamic stall.”
Ethiopian Airlines tweeted a photo of the company CEO standing in the debris field of the devastating crash site. Personal effects and airplane parts protruded from a crater created when the jet made impact.
Emergency crews arrived at the scene, about 38 miles from the airport within an hour of the crash, according to local reports. An eyewitness on the ground told BBC that they saw an “intense fire” as the aircraft made impact with the ground. “The blast and the fire were so strong that we couldn't get near it,” the man said. “Everything is burnt down. There are four helicopters at the scene now.”
During a press conference streamed on Facebook Ethiopian Airlines spokesman said they took possession of the brand new aircraft last November. He said that pilot was half Kenyan half Ethiopian with an “excellent flying record.” He said the aircraft was mostly submerged under ground from the impact and that a full multi-nation investigation was now underway.