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Earlier this week Lebanese authorities released the official investigation report about the ill-fated Ethiopian Airlines flight ET-409 that crashed in the Lebanon coast a few minutes after takeoff back in January 25, 2010. The official report said the pilots’ gross mistake was the cause of the tragic accident that claimed all 90 lives on board.
Ethiopian Airlines officials rejected the Lebanese accounts of the accident. Captain Desta Zeru, Ethiopian vice president for flight operations, who served as a representative in the flight accident investigation, says the real story of the ET-409 is completely different from what the Lebanese are claiming.
A pilot himself, who flew the Boeing made B-787 Dreamliner aircraft that made its first ever African debut arriving at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport last December, Captain Desta tells Capital’s Kirubel Tadesse that it is absolutely evident the pilots had nothing to do with the accident.
Capital: Ethiopian Airlines was involved in the ET-409 flight accident investigation in Lebanon and a team led by former Foreign Affairs Minister Seyoum Mesfin was dispatched there. In the early days the lack of cooperation from the Lebanese authorities reportedly eased following Seyoum’s visit. However, now we hear that there was a lack of cooperation and tampering of evidence. Could you take us to the early days of the investigation and what the Ethiopian team witnessed at the accident scene as well as the conduct of the Lebanese side?
Captain Desta Zeru: Ever since the day of the accident there was a lack of cooperation from the Lebanese side including access to the wreckage site, and the hospitals. And also there were a lot of speculation from the Lebanese side, and then as you mentioned a high delegation led by His Excellency Mr. Seyoum Mesfin was in Beirut to ease the tension and improve the relationship and cooperation between the two committees established for the investigation. They were full of promises; they said they would give us all the data and cooperate. It eased up for a while but got worse later. After a lot of promises for cooperation, they changed their minds. So we were in dispute for almost a year.
When the team of experts came in January 2011 in Addis Ababa, we had signed a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate fully and to do the analysis together. We listed down more but could only agree on one hundred twenty five pieces of evidence to collect and analyze. The crucial elements have been denied. Then again Ethiopian ministers and the director-general of civil aviation were in Lebanon for the third time to persuade them to cooperate in the investigation. However, they only gave us lip service. At the end of the day they came up with a lot of surprises denial and rejection of the evidence.
Capital: What evidence was not included in the investigation and would it have led to a significantly different conclusion than the official investigation have now reached?
Captain Desta: The total number of samples of evidence, about 125, were the ones they would agree to include into the process of analysis. However, there were eight crucial pieces of evidence that we felt were vital. They were related to security issues that could allow us to either rule out or confirm that there was some interference with the airplane.
Capital: What are the eight items?
Captain Desta: It starts from the recovery of the wreckage; which is a strong input, as any other accident investigation, it is a big piece of the puzzle. You need to have the wreckage to examine, to make laboratory and scientific tests, to rule out or confirm whether fire was involved in the accident. This is a crucial point.
The second point was to do medical examinations, analysis and autopsies with the victims’ bodies; so that again we could rule out or confirm if there were chemicals, explosives or any other external factors involved in the accident. There could be evidence in the body of the victims, and clothing; but many have been buried without any medical examinations. On the ones they claimed they did autopsies and some pathological tests, we were denied the records. We do not have any record to confirm or deny if there was fire involved.
So, this is a big puzzle, because we have strong evidence from the recorders of the airplane that the airplane was disintegrated in midair. This was confirmed by eye witness accounts, professionals’ accounts (not just any passerby); it was from air traffic controllers and pilots and captains flying in the air and also of course bystanders standing in the streets. This huge amount of evidence should be put into the equation and analysis should have been done to thoroughly rule out or confirm that there was some sort of explosion or fire involved in the accident. The baggage screening and passenger profiles, the X-ray walking through machine records would indicate if there was involvement of interference – whether internal or external.
Capital: What was the justification provided to you by the Lebanese authorities against including the eye witness accounts and other pieces of evidence?
Captain Desta: I would say it was conveniently downplayed and they told us that it had no relevance whatsoever to the accident. The investigator in charge kept telling us ‘to not waste our time’ and it was the pilot’s error and they have full evidence; “the pilot could not turn the plane to the requested heading.” Imagine this captain had almost 21 years of experience; he flew over 10,000 hours which is a huge amount of experience by any standard. And airplanes are designed to make a left, right turn and to ascend and descend. Because the airplane turned left, it does not crash. So any pilot who has a little experience even in a computer game knows how to make a left and right turn. This is a lame excuse; it is not a thorough investigation which collaborated all of the evidence. Therefore, the ‘investigation results’ were validating the predetermined conclusions. I don’t accept it.
Capital: As part of the investigation team I am sure you accessed or listened to the last minute conversation between the captain and his copilot. What were they saying to each other and as a pilot what can you understand from their conversation?
Captain Desta: The full context of the script is attached with our report. I heard it myself. It is very clear for anyone who listens to it that there was alarming and unusual occurrence that they had observed. You can hear especially from the captain saying that something extraordinarily was wrong. Something they did not expect; his reactions, his tone, his volume of voice and his desperate actions were just unusual.
Capital: Now the official report is being circulated. You also made available your analysis. Will the two sides consider independent bodies to do a further investigation or would the two documents be left for the public to judge?
Captain Desta: We put our side of the story as appending to the main report; it will also be on the websites. My stand and that of Ethiopian Airlines’ is to find out the truth. Pilots have made errors in the past and they will make errors in the future; and their errors have made aviation better. What we are not comfortable with is that we are not finding out the real truth.
It is my personal opinion that if the Lebanese cooperate, we can still pull out the wreckage and include all the missing parts in the puzzle and rerun the simulation and then analyze and debate professionally; I think we would come to the most probable cause of the accident. This would be in the safety and interest of the public and aviation.
Capital: The report said the pilots are to be blamed for the accident. Based on the information and analysis you’ve done, can you say in certainty that the pilots were not responsible for the crash?
Captain Desta: Absolutely. They were not responsible; it isn’t the probable cause of the accident. The pattern of the airplane, their reaction, and the data from the plane including from the voice recorders and so on and knowing the experience level of the pilots, it is very difficult to believe that this accident was caused due to the pilot’s error.