An Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet bound for Nairobi crashed minutes after take-off yesterday, 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.
The flight left Bole airport in Addis Ababa at 8:38 am (0538 GMT), before losing contact with the control tower just a few minutes later at 8:44 am.
"There are no survivors," the airline tweeted alongside a picture of CEO Tewolde GebreMariam holding up a piece of debris inside a large crater at the crash site.
Passengers from 33 countries were aboard, said Tewolde in a news conference. 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 crash came on the eve of a major, annual assembly in Nairobi of the UN Environment Programme, which learnt of the crash with "deep regret" but did not say whether any delegates were on the plane, reported AFP.
The aircraft, a 737 MAX 8, is the same model that crashed into the Java Sea shortly after take-off from Jakarta on October 29, killing all 189 people on board the Lion Air flight.
The cause of that crash is still under investigation.
Ethiopian's new aircraft had no recorded technical problems and the pilot had an "excellent" flying record, Tewolde said in a news conference.
“We received the airplane on November 15, 2018. It has flown more than 1,200 hours. It had flown from Johannesburg earlier this morning," he said. “The pilot mentioned that he had difficulties and that he wanted to return."
Flight ET 302, registration number ET-AVJ, crashed near the town of Bishoftu, 62 km (38 miles) southeast of the capital Addis Ababa, with 149 passengers and eight crew aboard, the airline said.
The flight had unstable vertical speed after take-off, the flight tracking website Flightradar24 tweeted.
The aircraft had shattered into many pieces and was severely burnt, a Reuters reporter at the scene of the crash said. Clothing and personal effects were scattered widely over the field where the plane came down.
It was not clear what had caused the crash. Boeing sent condolences to the families and said it was ready to help investigate.
This is the second recent crash of the latest version of Boeing's workhorse narrow-body jet that first entered service in 2017. The 737 is the world's best selling modern passenger aircraft and one of the industry's most reliable.
A preliminary report into the October Lion Air crash, focused on airline maintenance and training and the response of a Boeing anti-stall system to a recently replaced sensor, but did not give a reason for the crash. Since then, the cockpit voice recorder was recovered and a final report is due later this year.
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.
Robert Mutanda, 46, was waiting for his brother-in-law, a Canadian citizen.
"No, we haven't seen anyone from the airline or the airport," he told Reuters at 1:00pm, more than three hours after the flight was lost. "Nobody has told us anything, we are just standing here hoping for the best."
Kenyan officials did not arrive at the airport until 1:30 pm, five hours after the plane went down.
James Macharia, the cabinet secretary for transport, said he heard about the crash via Twitter.
Families were taken to Nairobi's Sheraton Hotel, but said they were still waiting to hear from airline staff eight hours after the accident.
Under international rules, responsibility for leading the crash investigation lies with Ethiopia but the US 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, a joint venture between General Electric and General Electric Co and France's Safran SA will 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.