Public Works and Transportation Minister Ghazi Aridi said that Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409, carrying 90 passengers and crew crashed in stormy weather just after takeoff from Beirut early Monday morning, plunging into the Mediterranean Sea.
Witnesses reported seeing “a ball of fire” as the jet plunged into the water.
Aridi said the Ethiopian airliner, which was headed to Addis Ababa, lost contact with the airport control tower shortly after takeoff and crashed into the sea about 12 kilometers (seven miles) south of the airport.
“The control tower was assisting the pilot of the plane on takeoff and suddenly lost contact for no known reason,” Aridi told reporters, adding that the Boeing 737-800 crashed some 3.5 kilometers off the coast.
He said the passengers include 54 Lebanese, 22 Ethiopians, one Iraqi, one French woman, one Syrian and seven crew members. There were also several dual nationals, including two British-Lebanese, one Canadian-Lebanese and a Russian-Lebanese.
French Ambassador to Lebanon Denis Pietton’s wife, Marla Sanzhez, was among the passengers, the French Embassy in Beirut confirmed.
An airport official initially said that 92 people were on board the flight, which Aridi said crashed about five minutes after takeoff at 2:30 a.m. local time.
He said he formed an investigative committee to determine the cause of the crash and contacted nearby countries to assist in the search and rescue efforts. He added that the committee is also cooperating with a French team to uncover the details of the crash.
The results of the investigation will be announced upon the conclusion of the committee’s work, added Aridi.
It was unclear whether there were any survivors, however, reports confirmed that rescue personnel were pulling bodies out. However, according to Al-Jazeera, rescue teams were able to save some passengers.
The Lebanese army, navy, as well as UNIFIL were assisting in the rescue, Aridi added.
“We have contacted everyone, inside and outside the country, who can assist us, and the Lebanese navy, the army and UNIFIL have joined in the rescue,” the minister added.
UNIFIL Colonel Diego Fulco told NOW that UNIFIL agreed to assist in the search and rescue operation at the request of the Lebanese army. UNIFIL has two ships and two helicopters out; a third ship on the way, said Fulco. However, he did not specify the number of personnel helping on the ground.
Families of the passengers, some of them weeping, could be seen arriving at Beirut International Airport, where they were escorted to a private area to await news of their loved ones.
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