Sometimes it’s pretty easy to get swept up in the monotony of life. I was a pretty frivolous child by all accounts, definitely too wrapped up in my own bullshit to see the things that really mattered. After graduating from university in 2009 I was eager to to get my ass out of England and pursue what I thought would be a fun adventure as a journalist in the Middle East. Turning up at Rafik al-Hariri International Airport like so many before me clutching a copy of ‘Pity the Nation’ in one hand and an outdated D-SLR in the other I was the epitome of a cliche. In reality I was far more interested in advancing my career and getting over the plethora of broken relationships I had left behind me to stop and pay attention to what was happening around me.
This was a Middle East just before the Arab Spring. This was a Middle East about to erupt into a full-scale regional catastrophe brought about by the people’s desire for abstract notions of liberty and equality. This was a Middle East still reeling from decades of corruption, war, poverty and sectarian strife. I knew all of this but at the same time I was oblivious, it’s like I was watching the whole thing in a movie and the people involved were actors in something much larger than themselves.
That bubble was about to pop though. It wasn’t a suicide bomb or an airstrike either, in fact that probably would have exacerbated my position. It was an accident, an unforeseen tragedy that was about to shatter my perceptions of what truly matters in life.
It was in the early hours of January 25th 2010, a torrid and stormy night in a typically unforgiving Lebanese Winter. The loud explosions of thunder and lightening however were masking something ominous, a couple miles off the coast of Beirut Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 had burst into flames and was crashing into the sea below killing all of the 90 passengers on board. As soon as the news started to filter through of a possible accident I got dressed and drove down to the airport as quickly as possible.
The next few hours of that day will live on in my memory forever. From the frantic press conferences and scramble to find out any information from the relevant authorities to the slow realisation that no one could have survived the catastrophe. The families of those on board started arriving in their droves desperate to find out information about their loved ones, refusing to give up hope despite the fact that no one could have survived that explosion or the rough seas below.
I remember the female TV journalist fighting back tears as she reported live, her best friend had been on board that flight.
I remember the man clutching a plane ticket, he had decided not to travel with his family and stay in Lebanon a few more days, his face haunted by the loss of his loved ones and the circumstances that had ultimately saved his life.
I remember the wretched sound of 300 people stuffed into a waiting room weeping inconsolably when the news came through that none had survived.
I remember walking along the beach as the military started to collect bits of wreckage and awaiting the bodies to wash up on shore.
It’s easy to get angry when a war steals a life. It’s easy to forget the horror of losing 90 people can have on a community. The tragedy of it all couldn’t be masked with anger, there was no evil regime to blame, no figurehead to hate. Just an outpouring of grief that cannot satisfactorily be summed up into words.
Seeing things like that change you, you forget all the crap that mattered before. I had spent months before that fretting over the break up of a pointless romance that did not even deserve my attention. I was spending my days desperately hoping to see some kind of “action” to take my mind off things.
What I got was a horrible wake up call. These stories that we work on as journalists aren’t a game. When you hear of a number of people dying in some far-away land, those aren’t just statistics. The loss of each life rings out. Every one of them a mother, father, brother, sister, son or daughter.
Frivolous problems of the past now seemed petty. Most of my life I hadn’t been thankful for everything I had been blessed with. Watching the man clutching onto his unused ticket made for a sobering thought, everything in life can be snuffed out in an instant.
I think about this day often. I think about the families and the loss they felt and still feel today. Every time I hear of an airstrike or a suicide bomb or a gun battle, the fatality count is no longer a statistic. Each one of them is a life, each one of them matters.
It’s a shame it took something of that magnitude to get over my own bullshit, but from that day forward I made a conscious effort to put everything I experience in life into perspective, it is too short to waste on things that don’t matter.
And every year on this day I take the time to remember the passengers of Flight 409 and their families. May those memories never be forgotten.
Here are the articles I wrote about the crash for the Daily Star along with my colleague Patrick Galey and with the assistance of virtually the entire news team that day.
90 Feared Dead in Ethiopian Plane Crash
An Ethiopian Airlines plane carrying 90 people exploded into flames and crashed into the sea minutes after taking off from Beirut airport amid violent storms early Monday morning. The Boeing 737 jet had been bound for the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa when it took off in adverse weather at just after 2:00 am local time. Eyewitnesses reported seeing a large explosion shortly after take-off.
A frantic search and rescue operation, bolstered by international retrieval squads was under way Monday as wind and rain lashed the coast. As The Daily Star went to press, at least 14 bodies had been hauled from the crash site south of Beirut, according to the Lebanese Red Cross, including two unidentified toddlers.
Other reports put the figure of dead higher and hopes of finding survivors were fading rapidly.
The cause of the crash was unknown, although statements from both the Lebanese and Ethiopian governments initially ruled out a terrorist attack.
Defense Minister Michel Murr blamed the atrocious weather conditions that had been battering Lebanon since Saturday evening.
“Bad weather was apparently the cause of the crash,” Murr said. “We have ruled out foul play so far.”
“We had not received any threat before from terrorist groups whatsoever,” said Ethiopian state minister for communication, Shimeles Kemal.
Ethiopian Airlines’ CEO Girma Wake told journalists in Addis Ababa that he had no information on the fate of people on board the plane.
He added that the aircraft was last serviced on December 25 and had passed inspection.
President Michel Sleiman declared the crash “a national disaster.”
Flight ET409 took off with 83 passengers and seven crew members, according to Lebanese Army officials. Ethiopian Airlines said that 82 passengers and eight crew were on board. The discrepancy could not be immediately explained.
Waking Nightmare Haunts Those Left Behind
The runway blockade may have ended but for friends and relatives of people on board Ethiopian Airline flight ET409 the tragedy is just beginning.
Families stream in from the rain still buffeting the glass terminal, with elderly relatives led by fearful sons and daughters.
Some are huddled in groups in the airport’s VIP section-cum-relief center, heads lowered in mourning. Others count prayer beads with trembling hands or embrace loved-ones silently, tears streaming down haggard cheeks.
Lebanese Red Cross workers, with sleepless eyes as red as their overalls, tend numbly to the victims in deepest distress.
While the majority silently awaits any updates on the fate of loved ones, many are overcome with grief.