No answers, and nothing to bury, as mourners descend on Ethiopia crash site

PHOTO: Reuters

From the quiet farmland at the base of rolling hills outside Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, the sound of wailing rang through the air.

Devastated mourners flung themselves onto a ground littered with business cards, seat covers and shards of aluminium.

They cried the names of loved ones who had been aboard the jetliner that nosedived into the field, leaving a dark scar in the soil but barely a trace of their existence.

"You were to be married soon! Why would you die?" one woman cried into the void.

Only the rumble of bulldozers digging for remains deep into the soil, and the pop of flares fired by police to disperse circling crows, punctuated the sobbing.

All 157 passengers and crew on Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 died when the Boeing 737 MAX 8, heading for Nairobi, Kenya, on Sunday crashed just six minutes after departing Addis Ababa.

Families from 35 countries were bereaved.

Relatives began trickling to the site of the obliterated jet on Wednesday, some bused in by Ethiopian Airlines, others on their own steam.

The melting pot of mourners from around the world grieved in their own ways, some praying, others scooping soil from the ground, while some offered fruit or flowers.

There were signs left by mourners from the previous days. A bunch of faded white roses lay at the edge of the tape cordoning off the site next to two chocolate bars bearing Chinese wrappers. Eight Chinese nationals died in the crash.

"Nobody expected this could happen to her. She loved her life," said Ethiopian Micky Kassa, whose cousin Mygenet Worku, 28, was flying to attend a UN environment conference in Nairobi.

"She has an old mother who raised her as a single parent. It's very sad news," he said.

For Ethiopians, the crash is a national tragedy, and even people untouched by the disaster made the trek to the remote site to pay their respects.

Ethiopian Airlines is Africa's largest carrier and in many ways the international face of the country.

The country lost nine passengers and eight crew members in the disaster.

"Every Ethiopian has to be here," said Genanaw Dibekulu, a bank branch manager who took the day off to visit the site. "It's tragic. If it had been my relative, I'd have gone mad."

A distraught relative is assisted after she is overcome, at the crash site of the Ethiopian Airlines.Photo: AFP

As sobbing filled the air, officials from the World Food Programme and other UN agencies that lost staff in the crash stood silently in a semi-circle, their heads bowed before a spread of white flowers set up to honour the victims.

Nairobi and Addis Ababa both host large regional offices of the United Nations, which lost 22 staffers to the crash.

Buses at the site near the village of Hama Qutushele unloaded relatives, who walked over to chairs set up under a tent, many howling inconsolably.

Some needed support as they staggered forward, while others carried framed portraits of their lost loved ones.

Funeral rites from different religions played off next to each other, as one man yelled "My brother!" in agony, and others repeated the same name over and over.

A grieving relative carries the picture of a victim at the crash site of the Ethiopian Airlines.Photo: AFP

Investigators from the United States, Britain, plane manufacturer Boeing, Interpol and the Ethiopian government are combing the site for clues as to what caused the crash - the second by a Boeing 737 MAX 8 in less than six months.

Relatives of one Israeli killed in the crash demanded access to a cordoned-off area where excavators were working.

"They don't allow us to access the site," complained Sahan Biton, whose uncle, Shimon Reem, a security expert consulting for a Nairobi mall, was among the dead.

Under Jewish custom, Reem cannot be buried until at least some remains had been found, Biton said.

He complained that the Ethiopian government was refusing to hand over remains or to let an Israeli search team into the impact site to find more.

"Until we … have remains, we can't bury our uncle," Biton said, standing with five other Israelis holding a flag as they sang their national anthem and recited funeral rites to honour the dead.

The plane ploughed nose down into the earth, and much of the wreckage was buried at least 20 metres (66 feet) deep, said Zhang Jun, a Chinese construction engineer working at the site.

He brought his back hoe and bulldozer from Addis Ababa, where he was working on an airport construction project.

"It is in the soil very deep," he said of the aircraft debris. "The pieces are very small, no more than two metres long," he said. The human remains he found, he added, "were even smaller".