BEIRUT – The pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed into the sea flew in the opposite direction from the path recommended by the control tower after taking off from Beirut in thunderstorms, Lebanon's transportation minister said Tuesday.
All 90 people on board were feared dead after the plane bound for Addis Ababa went down in flames minutes after takeoff at around 2:30 a.m. Monday.
Transportation Minister Ghazi Aridi said the pilot initially followed the tower's guidance, but then abruptly changed course and went in the opposite direction.
"They asked him to correct his path but he did a very fast and strange turn before disappearing completely from the radar," Aridi told The Associated Press.
It was not immediately clear why the pilot veered off the recommended path. Like most other airliners, the Boeing 737 is equipped with its own onboard weather radar, which the pilot may have used to avoid flying into thunderheads rather than following the flight tower's recommendation.
Ethiopian Airlines' CEO Girma Wake said the Lebanese minister's comments were premature. "Rushing remarks, I don't think that helps anybody," Wake said in Addis Ababa.
"Nobody is saying the pilot is to blame for not heeding orders," Aridi said, adding: "There could have been many reasons for what happened. ... Only the black box can tell."
Lebanese officials have ruled out terrorism or "sabotage."
No survivors had been found more than 24 hours after the crash. Emergency workers have pulled bodies from the sea; the numbers reported so far range from a dozen to more than 20. Several officials have revised their numbers, saying they miscounted.
"We hope they will find trapped bodies in the fuselage," Wake said.
Searchers were trying to find the plane's black box and flight data recorder, which are critical to determining the cause of the crash.
On Tuesday, rescue teams and equipment sent from the U.N. and countries including the United States and Cyprus were helping in the search. Conditions were chilly but relatively clear — far better than Monday, when rain lashed the coast.
Pieces of the plane and other debris were washing ashore, and emergency crews pulled a large piece of the plane, about 3 feet long, from the water. A crew member, Safi Sultaneh, identified it as a piece of a wing.
An aviation analyst familiar with the investigation said Beirut air traffic control was guiding the Ethiopian flight through the thunderstorms for the first 2-3 minutes of its flight.
The official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, said this was standard procedure by Lebanese controllers to assist airliners departing from the airport in poor weather conditions.
It is unclear exactly what happened in the last 2 minutes of flight, the official said.
Patrick Smith, a U.S.-based airline pilot and aviation writer, said there were many possible causes for the crash.
"Had the plane encountered extreme turbulence, or had it suffered a powerful lightning strike that knocked out instruments while penetrating strong turbulence, then structural failure or loss of control, followed by an in-flight breakup, are possible causes."
Ethiopian Airlines said late Monday that the pilot had more than 20 years of experience. It did not give the pilot's name or details of other aircraft the pilot had flown. It said the recovered bodies included those of Ethiopians and Lebanese.
The Lebanese army and witnesses say the plane was on fire shortly after takeoff. A defense official also said some witnesses reported the plane broke up into three pieces.
At the Government Hospital in Beirut, Red Cross workers brought in bodies covered with wool blankets as relatives gathered nearby. Marla Pietton, wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon, was among those on board, according to the French Embassy.
Some Lebanese families began mourning their loved ones.
In the southern town of Nabatieh, relatives gathered for a funeral for Ali Jaber, 40, a husband and father who had car dealerships in Lebanon and in West Africa.
"This catastrophe did not only hit our family, but it hits the whole nation," said Ahmad Jaber, the man's father.