March 14, 2019 / 7:09 AM / 10 days ago

Families of Ethiopian plane disaster victims steel themselves for journey to crash site

* 157 people killed in Sunday’s plane crash in Ethiopia

* Ethiopian mourners head to crash site

* State-owned Ethiopian Airlines is pride of country

* Families ask for more transparency in investigation

By Aaron Maasho

ADDIS ABABA, March 14 (Reuters) - Ethiopians clad in traditional mourning shawls and other black clothing gathered silently in a hotel conference room in Addis Ababa on Thursday, the loved ones of victims of ET Flight 302, before boarding buses headed for the crash site.

Couples held each other, slumped forward in their chairs and gazing downwards. Some men held their heads in their hands. Women in head scarves leaned for comfort against the chests of their relatives.

Some stood up to ask questions. They said they wanted more “transparency” from the airlines and more details of Sunday’s accident.

An airlines staff member replied that the crash was under investigation and that more details were emerging day by day.

A stoic man in a dark coat said he was steeling himself for the three-hour journey to the crash site.

Tewfik Ahmed, 39, was raised by the father of Ahmed Nur Mohammed, the deputy pilot of ET 302. Tewfik travelled from his home in the south of the country to pay his respects.

“Ahmed was the pride of the family,” he told Reuters, seated alongside several other mourners. “Heading to the site is the least I can do for him.”

All 149 passengers and eight crew aboard the flight were killed when their Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashed six minutes after taking off from the high-altitude capital of Ethiopia. The nation of 105 million people has long been proud of its state-owned airlines, its most successful company and the only profitable airline in sub-Saharan Africa.

Nine Ethiopians were killed in the crash, along with 32 Kenyans, 18 Canadians, and eight people each from China and Italy. A total of 35 nationalities were on board.

The mourners gathered at the Ethiopian Airlines-owned Skylight Hotel near Bole International Airport. Some held up framed photographs of young loved ones.

The room filled over the course of a half hour, becoming a packed, makeshift grieving centre.

An Ethiopian Airlines staff member, also wearing black, told the mourners it was offering them free accommodation. She also said the company would provide counselling. The staff members were flanked by bouquets of white roses and white candles.

BLACK BOXES FLOWN TO PARIS

The embassies of Canada, China, and Kenya had also asked Ethiopian Airlines to set up conference rooms for the families of victims from their countries. Early on Thursday morning, those rooms contained the national flags of those countries, but no relatives or friends of the victims.

The airline said on Twitter that an Ethiopian delegation had flown the black boxes from flight ET 302 to Paris for investigation. The contents of the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder will provide critical details about what happened, experts say.

The crash was the second disaster involving the 737 MAX, the world’s most-sold modern passenger aircraft, in less than five months, and by the end of Wednesday, the jet had been grounded globally by regulators and airlines.

The jet plunged into a field 60 km outside Addis Ababa, and the impact of the crash and fire left the victims’ remains in fragments that could take weeks or months to identify, experts say.

In both the Ethiopian Orthodox and Muslim faiths that are widely practised in the country, religious rules call for the burial of the dead as soon as possible.

Hamze Abdi Hussein came from the eastern Ethiopian town of Jijiga with five other family members after receiving confirmation of the crash that killed his uncle, Mucaad Hussein Abdela, a truck driver from Minnesota who was on his way to Kenya to visit relatives.

“We visited the crash site yesterday and we are heading there today. It is a huge loss for us,” he told Reuters. “The fact that there is no information about whether we will receive the body or not is frustrating and painful. There is not much that we are getting.”

After the brief Q and A session, the Ethiopian mourners filed silently out of the room and slowly boarded the convoy of eight Ethiopian Airlines buses.

The mourners looked like travellers themselves. Except they carried no luggage, only items to honour the dead in their final resting place. (Reporting by Aaron Maasho Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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