ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia– All 157 people on board an Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed soon after taking off from Addis Ababa have been killed, the airline said on Sunday morning.
The plane, en route to Nairobi, Kenya, lost contact at 8:44 a.m. local time, six minutes after taking off from Bole International Airport in the Ethiopian capital.
The aircraft, flight number ET302, went down near Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa. An airline spokesperson told CNN the victims were of 35 different nationalities.
The spokesperson said 32 Kenyans, 18 Canadians, nine Ethiopians, eight Americans, eight Italians and seven UK nationals were among the passengers.
Eight Chinese passengers were also on board, said Li Liang, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy to Ethiopia.
Ethiopian Airlines CEO, Tewolde GebreMariam, told reporters at a press conference that the pilot had reported technical difficulties and asked for clearance to return to Addis Ababa.
He was given clearance to turn back, according to GebreMariam, citing the Air Traffic Controllers record.
The pilot was a senior Ethiopian Airlines pilot who had flown more than 8,000 hours. He had an “excellent flying record,” according to the CEO.
The CEO visited the crash site on Sunday. He said the plane “is now right inside the ground” and it was not possible to identify whether it was an emergency landing or a crash. He said there was still smoke at the site when he visited.
“As it is a fresh incident, we have not been able to determine the cause. As I said, it is a brand new airplane with no technical remarks, flown by a senior pilot and there is no cause that we can attribute at this time.”
“The routine maintenance check didn’t reveal any problems,” GebreMariam added.
Asked about the possibility of terrorism or sabotage: “At this stage we cannot rule out anything.”
The Boeing 737 MAX 8 is the same type of plane as the Indonesian Lion Air jet that crashed soon after takeoff from Jakarta in 2018 — killing 189 people.
“They of course are the same [model of 737 MAX 8] planes,” but GebreMariam said only an investigation could make any conclusions.
The airline said in an earlier statement that staff would “be sent to the accident scene and will do everything possible to assist the emergency services.”
It added that a passenger information center and hotline “will be available shortly for family or friends of those who may have been on flight.”
The Ethiopian government expressed its “deepest condolences to the families,” the office of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who first broke the news of the crash, said on Twitter.
Ethiopian Airlines has gained the reputation of being one of the best airlines in Africa. It has a good safety record and the newest fleet of planes on the African continent, according to its website.
“Ethiopian Airlines is a very, very well-run airline,” said CNN anchor Richard Quest, who specializes in aviation. “There is no safety issue on Ethiopian. They’ve made it their business to be the African airline that operates like a western airline.”
But Geoffrey Thomas, the editor in chief of Airline Ratings, told CNN the Ethiopian Airlines crash on Sunday had “significant differences” to the Lion Air crash last year. On the Lion Air flight, there were “wild fluctuations in air speed and… we continued to get data from the plane all the way down to impact.”
Sunday’s crash, however, had “no fluctuations and all of the sudden transmission” ceased, he said. “That transmission ceasing indicates catastrophic failure in air.”
“I think [Ethiopian Airlines] are going to be looking at whether there was an engine failure,” CNN’s Quest said. “The plane is climbing out at a normal fashion, but there are mountains in the area, and longstanding pilots are well aware that if you have an issue departing Addis on that particular route, you’ve got a mountain in front of you.”
The aerospace giant said in a press statement that it was “deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew.” It added that a “Boeing technical team is prepared to provide technical assistance at the request and under the direction of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.”
The last major accident involving an Ethiopian Airlines passenger plane was in January 2010, when a flight from Beirut went down, killing 83 passengers and seven crew.