Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 January - 3 February 2010
Issue No. 983
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lebanon mourns

A plane crash plunged Lebanon into mourning mixed with speculation this week, reports Lucy Fielder in Beirut

Click to view caption
Relatives mourn near the coffin of prominent businessman Hassan Tajeddin, a rich and influential Shia man in southern Lebanon and a strong Hizbullah supporter, who was one of few people so far identified from Monday's Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 crash (photo: AP)

Fouad Al-Laqees got his ticket for Flight ET409 at the last minute. He had several times delayed his return to Angola, via Addis Ababa, after a business trip to his native Lebanon.

"I have no hope he survived," his son Jaafar told Al-Ahram Weekly, pale and fighting tears outside the Rafik Hariri government hospital in Beirut. "He delayed his trip four times and ended up on this plane at the last minute. It must have been his destiny."

In the hours after news broke of the plane crash just off the Lebanese coast, relatives thronged the airport, sobbing and desperately hoping for news of survivors among the 90 people on board.

As the day went on and rough seas yielded only the dead, hopes ebbed, and a sad tide of kin and friends flowed to the nearby hospital.

Scores of distraught people thronged the waiting rooms and courtyard, begging hospital workers, police and army for news. But even a day later, they looked likely to have a long wait.

Flight ET409 lost radar contact during a raging storm shortly after take-off at 2.30am on Monday and then plunged into the sea in what witnesses called a "ball of fire".

At the time the Weekly went to press, only 21 bodies had been confirmed found, and there were no survivors. Only two bodies had been identified.

"The bodies were in a terrible state, burned, decapitated, dismembered," said one doctor, who declined to be named. "I think it's going to take a long time to identify them." DNA testing was underway.

Many of the missing were thought to have been trapped in the main wreckage of the plane, strapped to their seats as the plane went down.

Lebanon is no stranger to disaster, trauma and loss, but this was a new kind of catastrophe, reflected in Al-Laqees's fatalism. The country observed a day of mourning for what President Michel Suleiman called a "national tragedy".

As with all such tragedies, it was not Lebanon's alone. Of the 90 people missing, 54 were Lebanese and 23 Ethiopian, and among the others were an Iraqi, a Syrian, and Marla Pietton, wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon.

Several thousand Ethiopians work in Lebanon, mainly as domestic help, and many African countries have large Lebanese communities. Addis Ababa is a transport hub between the Middle East and parts of Africa.

Many Lebanese living in Africa are Shias from the south, reflected in the names on the passenger list of those on board the doomed craft, and black flags lined the roads in the large southern towns of Tyre and Nabatieh.

As a large-scale rescue operation continued with the UNIFIL southern peacekeeping force bolstering the Lebanese army and navy search with helicopters and two German boats, soon joined by US, French and British rescue teams, speculation grew as to the cause of the crash.

At press time, the plane's black box flight recorder remained somewhere on the sea-bed, and US and French investigators were starting to arrive in Beirut to help the inquiry.

Fierce storms had battered the Lebanese capital for two days before the crash, and the plane took off in driving rain, as thunder and lightning rent the night sky.

"Bad weather was apparently the cause of the crash," Defence Minister Elias El-Murr told reporters. "We have ruled out foul play so far."

But other flights took off before and after the ill-fated flight ET409, and aviation analysts differed as to whether such a storm would bring down a modern aircraft such as the eight-year-old Boeing 737-800.

Lebanese Transport Minister Ghazi Al-Aridi said on Tuesday that the Rafik Hariri airport's control tower had directed the pilot to turn to avoid the storm.

"The pilot, however, continued to fly on the same route, and then he made a sudden, strange turn before disappearing from the radar," Al-Aridi said. He and other officials said it was too soon to understand why, and experts said the captain may have lost control of the plane.

Officials ruled out sabotage or terrorism. Investigators are expected to examine the possibility of lightning striking the craft, or of other factors having caused the crash, such as powerful wind currents in the towering storm clouds the flight encountered, or technical factors, such as engine failure or the plane's striking debris.

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