BEIRUT, Lebanon – Rescue workers found no one to save. They could only retrieve corpses of those aboard an Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed into the sea early Monday morning during a fierce winter storm.
The Boeing 737-800 bound for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, was carrying eight crew members and 82 passengers when it crashed into the Mediterranean shortly after takeoff from Beirut amid hail and thunder. The American-born wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon was among the passengers.
By nightfall, rescue workers recovered about 25 bodies, the Lebanese transportation minister said. Authorities have yet to find the flight data and voice recorders, or black boxes, that could yield clues about the cause of the crash. But officials said the ferocious overnight storm that blanketed the small country’s mountains with snow was likely a major factor.
“Bad weather was apparently the cause of the crash,” Defense Minister Elias Murr told reporters, according to local news outlets. “We have ruled out foul play so far.”
Lebanon’s airport has been a subject of controversy because of allegations that the Shiite Muslim political group maintains a security presence there to oversee the importation of weapons. No flights originating in Lebanon land in North America, largely because of security concerns.
But Lebanese and Ethiopian officials quickly discounted the possibility of terrorism or sabotage in the downing of the plane. A spokesman for the Addis Ababa government said the airline had received no prior threats.
“As of now, an act of sabotage is unlikely,” Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said.
The crew of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 lost contact with Lebanese air traffic control shortly after takeoff at 2:35 a.m., officials said.
“The control tower was assisting the pilot of the plane on takeoff and suddenly lost contact for no known reason,” Transportation Minister Ghazi Aridi told reporters.
According to a statement issued by the Lebanese army, witnesses saw the 737 catch fire before plunging into the sea.
Lebanese naval and air force units along with ships attached to the long-standing U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon continued relief and rescue operations late Monday, the army said.
Marla Sanchez Pietton, wife of the recently appointed French ambassador to Lebanon, was a native of the United States, friends said.