On Thursday, Ethiopian Airlines organized a memorial for the 17 Ethiopian victims, including eight crew members, taking the unusual step of busing in relatives and neighbors from around the country to a crash site that is still the focus of an active investigation.
The families trickled in throughout the day, often beginning to cry as soon as they left their buses and saw the dark earth seeded with the debris of the once-massive airplane.
The Boeing 737 Max 8 airliner went down at 8:44 a.m. Sunday shortly after takeoff from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, en route to Nairobi in neighboring Kenya. Passengers from more than 30 countries were on board, some of them headed to a U.N. environmental conference in the Kenyan capital. The crash has prompted countries all over the world — including, as of Wednesday, the United States — to ground 737 Max planes or bar them from their airspace.
Here at the crash site about 40 miles southeast of Addis Ababa, most of the Ethiopian plane’s pieces have been pushed into piles, but signs of the tragedy are still everywhere: a torn business card from Kenya, a headrest cover from the flight’s Cloud 9 business class, a brochure for Parvati.org, whose director of strategic initiatives, Darcy Belanger, was on the flight to attend the environmental conference in Nairobi.
Mementos left by mourners who visited on previous days are scattered around the scene.
A bunch of faded white roses lies at the edge of tape cordoning off the site next to two chocolate bars bearing Chinese wrappers. Eight Chinese nationals died in the crash.
Cries of “My child!” and “My brother!” filled the air around the site. Some family members fell to the ground in grief, while others moaned the names of their dead loved ones over and over.
“Mulusew Alemu,” an old man repeated — the name of a senior project manager for Catholic Relief Services who was headed for a training course in Nairobi with three colleagues.
Some simply stared silently at the mound of dirt, tears on their cheeks, as construction machinery pawed the debris.
“She was one of the most successful ones in the family and used to travel a lot outside the country,” Micky Kassa, a tall, slim Ethiopian with dreadlocks, said of his cousin, Mygenet Worku, who worked for the United Nations. Raised by a single mother, Mygenet was known in the neighborhood for being kind and ready to lend a hand.
“She used to help us by bringing in equipment or clothes from abroad to the neighbors, and she had a car and was always the first to come out and help and give rides,” he recalled, gesturing to her many friends and family in the gathering crowd at the memorial.
As he spoke, a bulldozer dumped more debris from the plane into a huge pile in front of the assembled mourners, while men wearing white masks and carrying plastic bags picked through the dirt.
The plane plowed nose down into the earth, and much of the wreckage was buried at least 60 feet deep, said Zhang Jun, a 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,” about 6 ½ feet long, he said. The human remains he found, he added, “were even smaller.”
The issue of human remains was on the minds of many of the mourners as they plaintively asked how they could bury their dead.
Beside a tent erected for the mourners, a group of Israelis had come to pay respects to two compatriots who were on the flight.
They also wondered how they could bury them and sit shiva in the Jewish tradition with no remains.
Hours after Sunday’s crash, one of the Israelis, Moshe Biton, flew in from Israel. He went to the scene that evening to search for the remains of his brother, Shimon Reem-Biton, only to be chased off by police, said Moshe Biton’s son, Sahar Biton.
“We don’t have the remains, so we can’t bury our uncle — no one has his possessions,” said Sahar Biton, who flew in later and was serving as a family spokesman. “There is a hangar full of remains, and they won’t let us in there, either.”
He said an Israeli team was standing by ready to help with the forensics but had yet to receive permission.
“We have the expertise to help everyone,” he said gesturing at the weeping mourners. “A lot of people can’t bury people.”
Officials at the site emptied bottles of water and filled them with dirt to hand out to mourners so they would have something to take back with them.
An arch of flowers had been erected near the mourning tents, with rose petals strewn on the ground.
On a table filled with bouquets, relatives set large portraits of the crash victims.
Some keened quietly to themselves, lighting candles. Others shouted in grief and beat their breasts, voices cracking in emotion.
In front of the floral arch, a half dozen U.N. officials bowed their heads in silence. At least 19 employees of the international body died in the crash.
“It’s very difficult to see where they died,” said Steven Were Omamo, the country representative for the World Food Program, which lost seven employees.
“It’s one thing to hear about it or see it on TV, but to be here and know this is where it all ended for them,” he said. “The grief is all around us — the families of the Ethiopian Airlines — it brings it all home.”