BEIRUT — An Ethiopian Airlines plane carrying 90 people caught fire and crashed into the sea minutes after taking from Beirut early Monday, setting off a frantic search as rain lashed the coast and debris washed ashore. At least 23 bodies were recovered.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known. Lebanon has seen stormy weather since Sunday night, with crackling thunder, lightning and pouring rain.
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, Ziadh, 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.
She begged reporters at the airport for information, saying: "Please find my son, I know he's alive and wouldn't leave me."
The dead include several children, according to a Lebanese defense official who asked that his name not be used because he is not authorized to speak to publicly.
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 Lebanese army said in a statement the plane was "on fire shortly after takeoff."
"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 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 huge waves slammed into the shore. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a day of mourning and closed schools and government offices.
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 CIT Aerospace. Calls to CIT Aerospace were not immediately returned Monday.
The plane was carrying 90 people, including 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 a valve in the rudder assembly. This 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.
In February 2009, a Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane crashed short of the runway at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, killing nine passengers and crew. Dutch investigators say the plane crashed because a false reading from a faulty altimeter.
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 note that 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.
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. The plane had just left Addis Ababa when three hijackers stormed the cockpit and demanded to be taken to Australia.
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. (AP)