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Witnesses: plane tumbled out of sky off Lebanon

BEIRUT – The first sign of trouble was a flash of light on the horizon Monday – and then witnesses said the Boeing 737 tumbled like ‘fire falling down from the sky’ into the stormy Mediterranean Sea.

All 90 aboard were feared dead in the pre-dawn crash. Lebanon’s leaders ruled out terrorism while investigators collected witness accounts in hopes they could’provide clues. Aviation experts cautioned it was too early to know what brought down the Ethiopian Airlines jet – particularly without the black boxes.

At the Government Hospital in Beirut, Red Cross workers brought in bodies covered with wool blankets as relatives gathered nearby. No survivors had been found by nightfall, and the health minister told reporters 21 bodies were recovered. Marla Pietton, wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon, was among those on board, according
to the French Embassy.

The Boeing took off at about 2:30 a.m. in driving rain,’lightning and thunder, and went down two miles off the coast, said Ghazi Aridi, the public works and transportation minister.

Hours after the crash, pieces of the plane and other debris were washing ashore, including a baby sandal, passenger seats, a fire extinguisher, suitcases and bottles of medicine.

‘We saw fire falling down from the sky into the sea,’ said Khaled Naser, a gas station attendant who saw the plane plunge into waters that had reached 64 degrees by’Monday afternoon.

The Lebanese army also said’the plane was on fire shortly after takeoff. A defense official said some witnesses reported the plane broke into three’pieces.

Aviation safety analyst Chris Yates said reports of fire could suggest ‘some cataclysmic failure of one of the engines’ or that a bird or debris had been sucked into the engine.

He noted that modern aircraft are built to withstand all but the foulest weather conditions.

Still, one prominent analyst cast doubt on the accuracy of witness reports of flames.

‘Eyewitnesses almost always report aircraft exploding in the sky or seeing heavy, heavy flames,’ said William Voss, head of the Flight Safety Foundation, a’nonprofit advocacy group based in Alexandria, Va.

Beirut airport is equipped with a sophisticated weather radar that flight controllers use to guide’planes around the towering thunderheads and accompanying winds and lightning that can cause structural damage to’airframes.

The electrically-charged clouds are part of massive storms that have regularly formed off the Lebanese coastline this winter.

Poor visibility in low clouds combined with high winds may have contributed to the problem faced by the pilots trying to regain control, he said.

An international rescue effort, with help from the U.S., Cyprus and the U.N., was launched after the crash. The weather’hampered the search as ships plowed through tall waves. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a day of’mourning and closed schools and government offices.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said terrorism was not suspected in the crash of’Flight 409. ‘Sabotage is ruled out as of now,’ he said.

Ethiopian Airlines’ CEO Girma Wake said the aircraft had been serviced on Dec. 25 and passed inspection. He said the plane had been leased in September from New York-based CIT Aerospace. A CIT spokesman declined to comment and referred questions to Ethiopian Airlines.

The plane was carrying 83 passengers and seven crew, Lebanese officials said. Aridi, the transportation minister, identified the passengers as 54 Lebanese,’22 Ethiopians, one Iraqi, one’Syrian, one Canadian of Lebanese origin, one Russian of Lebanese origin, a French woman and’two Britons of Lebanese origin.

Andree Qusayfi said his’35-year-old brother, Ziad, was traveling to Ethiopia for his job at a computer company but was’planning to return to Lebanon for good soon.

‘We begged him to postpone his flight because of the storm,’ Qusayfi said, his eyes red from crying, ‘but he insisted on going because he had work’appointments.’