By Aaron Maasho and Duncan Miriri
GARA-BOKKA, Ethiopia (Reuters) – Investigators in Ethiopia found two black box recorders on Monday that will help piece together the final moments of an Ethiopian Airlines plane before it plunged, trailing smoke and debris, and crashed killing 157 people.
China and Indonesia grounded their fleets of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 aircraft on Monday, although most major airlines continued to fly the plane.
The disaster came just months after a jet of the same model came down in Indonesia killing 189 people, and prompted a global aviation safety scare.
The Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 plunged into farmland minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa for Nairobi on Sunday.
“The plane was very close to the ground and it made a turn. We looked and saw papers falling off the plane,” Malka Galato, the farmer whose land the plane crashed on, told Reuters.
“Cows that were grazing in the fields ran in panic … There was smoke and sparks coming from the back of the plane.”
The plane tried to climb but failed, then swerved sharply trailing white smoke and objects including clothes before crashing, said farmer Tamirat Abera.
The victims came from more than 30 countries, and the United Nations said they included 21 members of its staff. The UN had earlier said 22 of its staff were on board.
Investigators seeking to find the cause of the crash discovered the black box with both the cockpit voice recorder and digital flight data on Monday, Ethiopian state TV said.
Boeing’s share price dropped 10 percent in early trading on Monday at the prospect that two such crashes in such a short time could reveal flaws in its new plane.
The 737 line, which has flown for more than 50 years, is the world’s best selling modern passenger aircraft and viewed as one of the industry’s most reliable.
The new MAX 8 variant, with bigger engines designed to use less fuel, entered service in 2017. By the end of January this year, Boeing had delivered 350 of the new jets to customers, with another 4,661 on order, and they could become the workhorses for airlines around the globe for decades.
Boeing’s stock price fall, if maintained through normal trading hours, would be its biggest in nearly two decades, halting a surge that has seen it triple in value in just over three years to a record high of $446 last week.
Various worried nations took swift action after the crash.
Ethiopian Airlines, which has four other 737 MAX 8 jets, said it was grounding them as a precaution. China also ordered its airlines to suspend their 737 MAX 8 jets by 6 p.m.
Noting that the accidents involving newly delivered planes had both taken place shortly after take-off, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) said it would notify airlines when they could resume flying the jets, after contacting Boeing and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
China has been asserting its independence as a safety regulator as it negotiates mutual safety standard recognition with regulators in the United States and Europe, Western industry sources say.
The crash may scupper a potential commitment by China to buy more Boeing-made aircraft as part of a deal being negotiated to end a months-long trade war between China and the United States.
Indonesia, where a Lion Air 737 MAX 8 went down in October, said it would temporarily ground the model for inspection.
Cayman Airways grounded both of its new 737 MAX 8 jets temporarily, while India announced a safety review. South Africa’s Comair also grounded its 737 MAX 8.
At the crash site, local villagers watched men in Red Cross jackets and masks picked through a large crater, stacking clothes in a heap and wrapping corpses in white body bags.
The smell of jet fuel mixed with burned flesh hung in the air. Another heap contained twisted green-and-yellow metal from the fuselage. A lone engine with dents around the edges and several damaged tyres lay nearby.
The dead included aid workers, doctors, professors of literature and botany, a law student, a newly wed woman, a father soon expecting a child, and a couple who just had a baby.
In Nairobi, a major hub for aid workers and diplomats, a summit opened with a moment of silence and tears for the U.N. members killed. In New York, the 15-member U.N. Security Council also stood to remember the dead.
“Our colleagues were women and men – junior professionals and seasoned officials – hailing from all corners of the globe,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. “They all had one thing in common – a spirit to serve the people of the world.”
Ethiopian Airlines said its pilot Yared Getachew, a dual Ethiopian-Kenyan national, had a “commendable record” and more than 8,000 hours of flying experience.
The airplane, received in November 2018, had flown more than 1,200 hours, and it had returned from Johannesburg earlier on Sunday, Chief Executive Tewolde GebreMariam said.
The flight had unstable vertical speed after take-off, the flight tracking website Flightradar24 tweeted. The Sweden-based service said the jet climbed almost 1,000 feet after taking off from Addis Ababa, a hot and high-altitude airport whose thinner air requires extra effort from an aircraft’s engines.
It dipped about 450 feet before rapidly climbing another 900 feet until the point where satellite tracking data was lost.
(Additional reporting by Maggie Fick, Katharine Houreld and Hereward Holland in Nairobi, Stella Qiu in Beijing, Jamie Freed in Singapore, Bernadette Christina Munthe in Jakarta, Josh Horwitz in Shanghai, Sanjana Shivdas in Bengaluru, Stephanie Nebehay and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Katharine Houreld; Editing by Peter Graff)