An explosion in the sky – and Beirut's worst fears came true

Concerns about safety of planes taking off in storms confirmed by crash that killed 90 passengers and crew

All weekend, it had been storming across Beirut, bringing the first snows to the mountains above the capital, a near tempest of lightning and thunder that blasted across the seafront Corniche and the runways of the city's international airport. The Lebanese often wondered just how safe it was to fly out of their country in these winter storms. And in the early hours of yesterday morning, their fears were given terrible expression when Ethiopian Airlines flight ET409 exploded in the sky scarcely two miles from Beirut, less that five minutes after take-off.

All day, while Lebanese army helicopters and European naval ships under the UN's command searched for bodies in the high seas, the pitiful detritus of the disaster – a baby's sandals, baggage, medicine bottles, airline seats and wires – were thrown up by the tremendous waves on Naameh beach, in sight of the airport from which the Boeing 737-800 jet had taken off.

There had been 90 passengers and crew aboard and by yesterday afternoon, there was no hope of finding any alive. Many saw the explosion that burst in the cloudy skies at 2.30am, a scar of sudden bright light on the horizon two miles out to sea. Within hours, Beirut airport became the inevitable scene of human desolation, one woman shrieking with grief in the terminal. Should the plane have taken off in such dreadful weather? And was this the fault of the flight deck crew, or of Beirut operations which had given the pilot clearance to take off?

In a world where suspicions of sabotage accompany any aircraft crash - in the "old world" pre-al Qa'ida days, a crash was assumed to be caused by technical faults or human error unless there was evidence to the contrary – it has to be said that there was no reason to suspect a criminal hand behind the tragedy. The Lebanese president, Michel Sleiman, said as much yesterday morning. There is a large expatriate community of Ethiopian workers in Beirut and, despite its repeated wars, Lebanon has had no political contact with African conflicts.

Of the 34 bodies – two of them children – recovered from the sea last night, many are so dismembered that they will need DNA examinations to be identified. There were two Britons among the 83 passengers, along with 54 Lebanese and 22 Ethiopians. The passenger manifest also included Canadians, French – including Marla Pieton the wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon, Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish nationals. From their relatives at the airport came awful tales; of the mother who pleaded with her son to delay travelling because of the weather, of parents who could not understand why a plane should take off into a thunderstorm in the middle of the night over a raging sea.

But taking off from Beirut in bad weather has always been an unsettling experience. The location of the airport, just south of the city, means that outbound airliners must fly out to sea immediately after leaving the ground. If they continued south, they would quickly be heading for the Israeli frontier. The usual take-off runway forces pilots to bank heavily to starboard and passengers can sea the ocean immediately below the right wing of the plane. In bad weather – and I write as a veteran Beirut airline passenger – the sight of massive waves and sea-spray under the starboard wing-tip is usually a little terrifying. It normally takes more than 10 minutes to rise above the turbulence and flight ET409 exploded when it was still in cloud, just five minutes after leaving the ground. Beirut has a first-class record in on-time takeoffs; the question must be asked if controllers allowed this to overcome any doubts about the weather. But planes had been taking off into the same storm and lightning for more than 12 hours before the disaster. Yesterday, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, paid a painful visit to the airport to meet distraught relatives, some of whom would not accept that the jet had been lost.

The last crash at Beirut airport was more than 20 years ago when a Polish freight aircraft crashed in the hills to the south-east.

During the 1975-90 civil war, a Hungarian Malev airliner was accidentally hit by a stray shell while coming in to land. All aboard were killed. Shortly afterwards, a Lebanese MEA Boeing 707 exploded over Saudi Arabia when a bomb – put aboard, probably by a Palestinian group and timed to blow up when the flight had reached its destination – exploded prematurely.

Ethiopian Airlines: One of Africa's safest

*Founded in 1945, and 100 per cent owned by the government, Ethiopian Airlines is considered to be one of the safest African operators. It is also one of the continent's few profitable airlines, who last week ordered Boeing's Next-Generation 737-800s.

*The last incident involving the airline was more than 13 years ago. A Boeing 767 was hijacked while flying from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. It ran out of fuel and ditched in the sea off the Comoros Islands, killing 123 of the 175 people on board.

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