The Ethiopian Airlines aircraft that crashed on Sunday experienced engine trouble three days ago, Israel’s Ambassador to South Sudan Hanan Godar said, noting that he was a passenger on board the jetliner last week.
The plane carrying 157 people crashed shortly after takeoff from the Ethiopian capital, killing everyone aboard and carving a crater into the ground, authorities said. At least 35 nationalities were among the dead, including two Israelis. The Israelis have yet to be publicly identified.
Godar told Channel 13 that he traveled on the same aircraft overnight Thursday, on a route from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv.
Before takeoff, “the passengers understood there was a problem. It was hot, they didn’t give out water,” he said.
The pilot informed them of a problem with one of engines, telling them: “We’ll operate one engine to see if it catches, and if it catches, we’ll start the other engines,” Godar said.
After a test run, the plane took off, and arrived safely in Tel Aviv. From there, it returned to Addis Ababa, and then headed to Nairobi in its fatal, final route, he said.
It was not clear what caused the Ethiopian Airlines plane to go down in clear weather. The accident was strikingly similar to last year’s crash of a Lion Air jet that plunged into the Java Sea, killing 189 people. Both crashes involved the Boeing 737 Max 8, and both happened minutes after the jets became airborne.
The Ethiopian pilot sent out a distress call and was given clearance to return to the airport, the airline’s CEO told reporters.
At the crash site, the impact caused the plane to shatter into small pieces. Personal belongings and aircraft parts were strewn across the freshly churned earth. Bulldozers dug into the crater to pull out buried pieces of the jet.
Red Cross teams and others searched for human remains. In one photo, teams could be seen loading black plastic bags into trucks.
The Israeli emergency-response group ZAKA said it would be sending a delegation to the site of the crash at midnight “in order to locate and identify the Israeli victims, to collect their remains in keeping with Jewish law and ensure a full Jewish burial.”
As sunset approached, crews were still searching for the plane’s flight-data recorder, the airline’s chief operating officer said.
Worried families gathered at the flight’s destination, the airport in Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya.
Agnes Muilu said he came to pick up his brother. “I just pray that he is safe or he was not on it,” he said.
Relatives were frustrated by the lack of word on loved ones.
“Why are they taking us round and round. It is all over the news that the plane crashed,” said Edwin Ong’undi, who was waiting for his sister. “All we are asking for is information to know about their fate.”
The accident is likely to renew questions about the 737 Max, the newest version of Boeing’s popular single-aisle airliner.
The Ethiopian Airlines CEO “stated there were no defects prior to the flight, so it is hard to see any parallels with the Lion Air crash yet,” said Harro Ranter, founder of the Aviation Safety Network, which compiles information about accidents worldwide.
The airline published a photo showing its CEO standing in the wreckage.
The Ethiopian plane was new, having been delivered to the airline in November.
State-owned Ethiopian Airlines is widely considered the best-managed airline in Africa and calls itself Africa’s largest carrier. It has ambitions of becoming the gateway to the continent and is known as an early buyer of new aircraft.
“Ethiopian Airlines is one of the safest airlines in the world. At this stage, we cannot rule out anything,” CEO Tewolde Gebremariam said.
The airline said 149 passengers and eight crew members were thought to be on the plane.