Plane crashes into sea

Frantic search: Debris from the Ethiopian Airlines plane being gathered near Beirut airport, Lebanon, on Monday.

Frantic search: Debris from the Ethiopian Airlines plane being gathered near Beirut airport, Lebanon, on Monday.   | Photo Credit: — PHOTO: AP

BEIRUT: An Ethiopian Airlines plane carrying 90 people caught fire and crashed into the sea minutes after taking off from Beirut early Monday, setting off a frantic search as passenger seats, baby sandals and other debris washed ashore. At least 34 bodies were recovered.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known. Lebanon has seen stormy weather since Sunday night, with crackling thunder, lightning and rain. The plane went down in darkness and crashed into water that reached just 64 Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius) by afternoon.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said terrorism was not suspected in the crash of Flight 409, which was headed for the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. “Sabotage is ruled out as of now,” he said.

Weeping relatives streamed into Beirut’s airport to wait for news on their loved ones. One woman dropped to her knees in tears; another cried out, “Where is my son?”

Andree Qusayfi said his brother, Ziadh (35), was travelling to Ethiopia for his job at a computer company, but was planning to return to Lebanon for good soon.

“We begged him to postpone his flight because of the storm,” he said, his eyes red from crying. “But he insisted on going because he had work appointments.”

Zeinab Seklawi said her 24-year-old son Yasser called her as he was boarding.

“I told him, ‘God be with you,’ and I went to sleep,” she said. “Please find my son. I know he’s alive and wouldn’t leave me.”

The dead include several children, according to a Lebanese defence official who asked that his name not be used because he is not authorised to speak to publicly.

The Boeing 737-800 took off around 2:30 a.m. (7:30 p.m. EST) and went down 3.5 km off the coast, said Ghazi Aridi, Public Works and Transportation Minister. The Lebanese army said in a statement the plane was on fire shortly after takeoff.

“The weather undoubtedly was very bad,” Mr. Aridi told reporters at the airport.

Pieces of the plane and debris were washing ashore in the hours after the crash, including passenger seats, a baby sandal, a fire extinguisher and bottles of medicine.

Wife of Denis Pietton, French Ambassador to Lebanon, was on the plane, according to the French embassy. — AP

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