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Ethiopian airlines crash: Experts look at possible causes

An Ethiopian Airlines plane carrying 90 people caught fire and crashed into the sea just after taking off from Beirut early Monday. Experts speculate that an engine malfunctioned – possibly caused by a bird strike – shortly after take off.

By Elizabeth A. KennedyAssociated Press / January 25, 2010

Remains of an Ethiopian Airlines plane which crashed into the Mediterranean sea on Monday morning, are seen on the shore at Khaldeh beach, south of Beirut, as divers inspect the area.

Sharif Karim/Reuters

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Beirut, Lebanon

An Ethiopian Airlines plane carrying 90 people caught fire and crashed into the sea two minutes after taking off from Beirut early Monday. At least 34 bodies have been recovered.

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The cause of the crash was not immediately known. Lebanon has seen stormy weather since Sunday night, with crackling thunder, lightning and rain, but experts say that weather alone is unlikely to be the cause.

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.

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 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.

The plane was carrying 90 people, including 83 passengers and 7 crew, said Ghazi Aridi, the public works and transportation minister. He 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.

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.

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