BEIRUT – An Ethiopian Airlines plane carrying 90 people caught fire and crashed into the sea minutes after taking off from Beirut early Monday, setting off a frantic search as passenger seats, baby sandals and other debris washed ashore.
No survivors had been found by nightfall, and Health Minister Mohammed Jawad Khalife told reporters that emergency workers had recovered 21 bodies.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known. Lebanon has seen stormy weather since Sunday night, with crackling thunder, lightning and rain.
"We saw fire falling down from the sky into the sea," said Khaled Naser, a gas station attendant who saw the plane go down around 2:30 a.m., crashing into the frigid waters of the Mediterranean that had reached just 64 degrees (18 degrees Celsius) by Monday afternoon.
The Lebanese army said in a statement the plane was on fire shortly after takeoff.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said terrorism was not suspected in the crash of Flight 409, which was headed for the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
"Sabotage is ruled out as of now," he said.
Weeping relatives streamed into Beirut's airport to wait for news on their loved ones. One woman dropped to her knees in tears; another cried out, "Where is my son?"
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."
Zeinab Seklawi said her 24-year-old son Yasser called her as he was boarding.
"I told him, 'God be with you,' and I went to sleep," Seklawi said. "Please find my son. I know he's alive and wouldn't leave me."
At the Government Hospital in Beirut, Red Cross workers brought in bodies on stretchers covered with wool blankets as relatives gathered nearby. Many people were giving DNA samples to help identify the remains of their loved ones.
One man identified his 3-year-old nephew by the overalls the boy was wearing.
The Boeing 737-800 took off around 2:30 a.m. (7:30 p.m. EST) and went down 2 miles (3.5 kilometers) off the coast, said Ghazi Aridi, the public works and transportation minister.
"The weather undoubtedly was very bad," Aridi told reporters at the airport.
Pieces of the plane and debris were washing ashore in the hours after the crash, including passenger seats, a baby sandal, a fire extinguisher, suitcases and bottles of medicine.
The wife of Denis Pietton, the French ambassador to Lebanon, was on the plane, according to the French embassy.
Helicopters and naval ships were scrambled for a rescue effort as waves reaching 1.5 feet (a half-meter) slammed into the shore. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a day of mourning and closed schools and government offices.
Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. military has deployed a guided-missile destroyer, the USS-Ramage, as well as a P-3 surveillance aircraft to help with search and rescue efforts.
The defense ministry in Cyprus, which sent reinforcements to help in the search, corrected an earlier statement that said 34 bodies had been recovered, saying they miscounted the bodies.
Ethiopian Airlines' CEO Girma Wake told journalists in Addis Ababa that he had no information on the fate of those on board or about the cause of the crash. He said the aircraft had been serviced on Dec. 25 and passed inspection.
He also said the plane had been leased in September from New York-based CIT Aerospace. CIT spokesman declined to comment and referred questions to Ethiopian Airlines.
The plane was carrying 83 passengers and 7 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.
Ethiopian Airlines reported that there were 82 passengers and eight crew; the discrepancy could not immediately be explained.
The Boeing 737 is considered one of the safest planes in airline service. The jet was first introduced in the 1960s, and today is the workhorse on many short- and medium-range routes.
Still, over the past 15 years it was involved in a series of incidents and crashes linked to problems with a valve in the rudder assembly. The valve reportedly would malfunction and cause the rudder to turn independently of the pilot's commands.
The problem was considered resolved after operators of older Boeing 737s were ordered to carry out inspections and upgrades of the critical rudder control systems.
Sidney Dekker, a professor of flight safety at the School of Aviation at Lund University in Sweden, said the rudder problem has been corrected by the manufacturer and that he'd be "hugely surprised" if it had anything to do with the crash.
Dekker, himself a 737 pilot, said that if reports of an engine fire proved to be correct, the accident could have resulted from a loss of control at a relatively low altitude where it would have been difficult to recover.
He noted that the 737's engines were overpowered in order to fulfill performance requirements in the event of the loss of an engine at takeoff. This tended to produce a turning movement of the entire aircraft — known as yaw — toward the dead engine.
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.
Aviation safety analyst Chris Yates said it was far too early to say what caused the crash, but he noted that modern aircraft are built to withstand all but the foulest weather conditions.
"One wouldn't have thought that a nasty squall in and of itself would be the prime cause of an accident like this," said Yates, an analyst based in Manchester, England. He said reports of fire could suggest "some cataclysmic failure of one of the engines" or that something had been sucked into the engine, such as a bird or debris.
The state-owned Ethiopian Airlines has long had a reputation for high-quality service compared to other African airlines, with two notable crashes in more than 20 years.
A hijacked Ethiopian Airlines jet crash-landed off the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean when it ran out of fuel in November 1996, killing 126 of the 175 people aboard. In September 1988, an Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed shortly after taking off when it ran into a flock of birds, killing 31 of the 104 people on board.
Ethiopian Airlines announced last week that it signed an agreement with Boeing to buy 10 more of the 737-800s at an estimated $767 million. The order will expand the airline's fleet from the 36 aircraft it has now — not including the 737-800 that crashed Monday.