More bodies have been pulled from the water after an Ethiopian Airlines plane carrying 90 people caught fire and crashed into the Mediterranean shortly after takeoff from Beirut.
At least 23 bodies have been recovered from the water, following a frantic search as Flight 409 debris washed ashore on the Lebanon coast.
The plane disappeared off the radar and contact was lost 45 minutes into the flight.
The cause of the crash is not yet known, but Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said terrorism was not suspected. It is understood Lebanon has been slammed by bad weather since Sunday night, with crackling thunder, lightening, and pouring rain.
The Boeing 737-800 took off around 2.30am, (7.30pm EST) and went down 3.5 kilometres off the coast.
The plane, headed for the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, was “on fire shortly after takeoff”, according to a statement released by the Lebanese army.
“The weather undoubtedly was very bad,” Lebanon’s public works and transportation minister, Ghazi Aridi, told reporters at Beirut’s airport. Relatives of the passengers have gathered there to wait for news.
The plane was carrying 90 people, of which 83 were passengers and 7 crew members. The passengers have been identified 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 Associated Press reported on man, Andree Qusayfi, saying he had begged his 35-year-old brother Ziadh to postpone his flight to avoid the storm.
Ziadh was travelling to Ethiopia to work at a computer company.
“He insisted on going because he had work appointments,” Mr Qusayfi said.
In the hours following the crash, pieces of the plane and debris have washed ashore, including passenger seats, a fire extinguisher, and bottles of medicine.
The French embassy has confirmed the wife of Denis Pietton, the French ambassador to Lebanon, was on the plane.
Schools and government offices in Lebanon have been closed after prime minister Saad Hariri announced a day of mourning.
Ethiopian Airlines CEO Girma Wake told journalists in Addis Ababa that the aircraft had been serviced on December 25 and passed inspection. He said the plane was leased from CIT Aerospace in September.
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.
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.