Ethiopian Airlines crash: ‘I prayed for their souls’

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Ethiopian Airlines crash: ‘I prayed for their souls’

Adadi, Ethiopia – It was just another Sunday morning for Atlaw Wihib.

The 49-year-old was getting ready to attend Mass, as were many other residents in this small village of about 120 people in central Ethiopia.

But all that was about to change.

“I was having breakfast before going to church when I saw a plane falling from the sky,” says Atlaw, a father of three.

On that very moment, at 8:44am, a burning Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet appeared in the clear blue skies above Adadi, plummeting towards the semi-barren hills beyond the village.

“I heard four large explosions. I have never heard anything that loud,” says Atlaw, whose village lies about 500 metres from the site where flight ET 302 crashed.

“I was very scared but I ran to the field to check and I saw a shocking sight,” he adds, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Body parts were everywhere. Some were even burning. There was a massive fire.”

Atlaw Wihib said body parts of the crash’s victims ‘were burning’ [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest air carrier, said everyone on board the flight was killed. The plane crashed six minutes after taking off from Addis Ababa en route to Nairobi.

More people died in the crash – 149 passengers and eight crew members – than those living in Atlaw’s village.

The debris from the accident is strewn across a farm that has now become the centre of global attention. Investigators from across the world have descended on Adadi, sifting through the crash site to identify the remains of the victims, who hailed from 35 countries.

The news triggered an outpouring of grief and sadness worldwide, while Ethiopia, which lost nine people in the crash, declared a day of national mourning.

Late on Monday afternoon, a white helicopter kicks up a bowl of dust before disappearing beyond the hills in the distance. At least five excavators are busy at work.

Heavily armed security officers are keeping an eye on the 100 or so spectators gathered near the scene, making sure no one trespasses, as emergency workers comb through the site holding transparent sample bags.

A flock of black and white crows hang in the thin air on the lookout for food.

Accident investigators from across the world have descended on the crash site [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

“There are children among the dead because we saw their clothes,” says a 32-year-old operator of one of the excavators, who refuses to give his name because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

“What I saw will stay with me, until I die. It is too painful to even describe it,” he adds.

‘Dust, smoke and fire’

As the clock strikes 4pm, two ambulances with their lights flashing leave the site.

Tears trickle down the face of Sisay Abera as she takes stock of the events unfolding before her eyes.

“Our children ran and hid for cover when the plane came down crashing,” Abera says, as a group of other women join her, tears running down their faces.

“My son hid underneath the bed. There was a lot of dust, smoke and fire. We are all in shock and very scared,” the 35-year-old adds, hugging her five-year-old son tightly.

“I cannot believe that many people died there.”

Sisay Abera said her children ‘ran and hid for cover when the plane came down crashing’ [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

Earlier in the day, Ethiopian Airlines, China and other countries announced that they would ground the aircraft that was involved in the crash, the Boeing 737 MAX 8, the same type of aircraft that went down in Indonesia some six months ago, killing all 189 people on board.

“Following the tragic accident of ET 302/10 March B-737-8-MAX (ET-AVJ), Ethiopian airlines has decided to ground all B-737-8 MAX fleet effective yesterday March 10, 2019, until further notice,” Ethiopian Airlines said in a statement on Monday.

“Although we don’t yet know the cause of the accident, we had to decide to ground the particular fleet as extra safety precaution,” the Ethiopian Airlines statement adds.

Adadi is about 500m from where flight ET 302 came crashing down [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

Back in Adadi, Sunday church service seems to have taken on a whole new meaning for its few residents.

“I went to church and prayed for their souls. I also thanked God for saving us and our village,” says Tewabech Gebrewold, a 50-year-old housewife.

“I pray God continues looking after us,” the mother-of-six adds.

As the sun sets, and all but the security officers start leaving the crash site, Atlaw hopes outsiders will visit his village in the future for other reasons.

“It is sad because all these people came here because of bad news, because of so many deaths,” he says.

“I hope one day they come because of good news,” he adds, before beginning to walk back to his home, just a few minutes away.

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