An Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet bound for Nairobi crashed minutes after take-off on Sunday, killing all 157 people on board and raising questions about the safety of the Boeing 737 MAX 8, a new model that also crashed in Indonesia in October.
Sunday’s flight left Bole airport in Addis Ababa at 8:38 a.m. (0538 GMT), before losing contact with the control tower just a few minutes later at 8:44 a.m.
“The pilot mentioned that he had difficulties and that he wanted to return,” Ethiopian Airlines chief executive Tewolde GebreMariam told a news conference.
“There are no survivors,” the airline tweeted alongside a picture of Tewolde holding up a piece of debris inside a large crater at the crash site.
Passengers from 33 countries were aboard, said Tewolde.
The dead included Kenyan, Ethiopian, American, Canadian, French, Chinese, Egyptian, Swedish, British, Dutch, Indian, Slovakian, Austrian, Swedish, Russian, Moroccan, Spanish, Polish, and Israeli citizens.
Weeping relatives begged for information at airports in Nairobi and Addis Ababa.
“We’re just waiting for my mum. We’re just hoping she took a different flight or was delayed. She’s not picking up her phone,” said Wendy Otieno, clutching her phone and weeping.
The aircraft, a 737 MAX 8, is the same model that crashed into the Java Sea shortly after take-off from Jakarta on Oct 29, killing all 189 people on board the Lion Air flight.
The cause of that crash is still under investigation.
There was no immediate indication of what caused the crash and safety experts said it was too early to speculate, adding most accidents are caused by a cocktail of factors. Boeing said it was ready to help investigate.
At Nairobi airport, many relatives were left waiting at the gate for hours, with no information from airport authorities. Some learned of the crash from journalists.
Kenyan officials did not arrive at the airport until 1:30 p.m.
James Macharia, the cabinet secretary for transport, said he heard about the crash via Twitter.
Nineteen staff from at least five U.N. and affiliated organizations died, including the World Food Program, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, the International Telecommunications Union, the U.N. Environment Program, the World Bank and the International Organisation on Migration, the IOM said.
Under international rules, responsibility for leading the crash investigation lies with Ethiopia but the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will also participate because the plane was designed and built in the United States.
Representatives of Boeing and Cincinnati-based engine-maker CFM International, a joint venture between General Electric and General Electric Co and France’s Safran SA, were expected to advise the NTSB.
Ethiopian is one of the biggest carriers on the continent by fleet size. The plane was among six of 30 Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets the rapidly expanding carrier has ordered.
The fleet will continue flying since the cause of the crash is not clear, the CEO said.
Its last major crash was in January 2010, when a flight from Beirut went down shortly after take-off, killing all 90 people onboard. The Lebanese blamed pilot error, which was disputed by the airline.
North American airlines that operate the 737 MAX 8 said they were monitoring the investigation. Southwest Airlines flies 31 MAX 8 jets while American Airlines and Air Canada each have 24 in their fleet. Southwest said it remained confident in the safety of its more than 750 Boeing jets.