International search combs Mediterranean after Lebanon plane crash but hopes dim for survivors

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hopes dim for survivors after Lebanon plane crash

BEIRUT — Crews from several countries combed the sea off the coast of Lebanon on Tuesday but all 90 people aboard an Ethiopian Airlines jet were feared dead after the plane went down in flames during a stormy night of lightning and thunderstorms.

Flight 409 crashed in flames just minutes after takeoff from Beirut at around 2:30 a.m. Monday. No survivors had been found more than 24 hours after the crash and so far, at least 20 bodies have been pulled out from the Mediterranean Sea.

Searchers were trying to find the plane’s black box and flight data recorder, which are key to determining the cause of the crash.

Rescue teams and equipment were sent from the U.N. and countries including the United States and Cyprus. Conditions were chilly but relatively clear — far better than Monday, when rain lashed the coast and tall waves crashed into shore as crews searched in vain for survivors.

The flight had been headed to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

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 the sea.

The Lebanese army also said the plane was on fire shortly after takeoff. A defense official said some witnesses reported the plane broke up into three pieces.

At the Government Hospital in Beirut, Red Cross workers brought in bodies covered with wool blankets as relatives gathered nearby. Marla Pietton, wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon, was among those on board, according to the French Embassy.

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.

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