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The emotional wreckage of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302
THEY walked the corridors of Capitol Hill, carrying photographs of the children, spouses and parents they lost. They met lawmakers and regulators, calling for changes they believed might prevent future deaths. And they mourned - alone and together, an international support group drawn to one another through shared tragedy.
In the year since the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, the families of the victims have become a political force, pressuring governments and companies to overhaul aviation safety.
And though they did not accomplish everything they set out to achieve, their presence - at corporate meetings, congressional hearings and the crash site itself - injected a potent emotional charge into a saga that has upended the global aviation industry.
The crash, on March 10, 2019, was the second time in five months that a new Boeing 737 Max had malfunctioned. The accident claimed 157 lives, including humanitarians, executives, students and retirees. Entire families were killed.
Chris and Clariss Moore of Toronto lost their daughter, Danielle. Moore usually called Danielle before either of them got on a plane. But they only had time to text before Danielle boarded Flight 302, on her way from Addis Ababa to the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi. An hour later, Moore got a call from a Canadian official telling her that Danielle was dead.
"When I heard that it felt like the whole world collapsed," Moore said. "Did she call for me? Did she scream for us?" A year after the crash, the families continue to call for more scrutiny of the Max, press for an overhaul to aviation laws and confront Boeing executives. At times, when the bureaucracy is all too much, their efforts can seem futile.
Yet they have found some solace in one another, renting houses together, holding vigils and staying in touch via WhatsApp. On Tuesday, many families would have gathered in Ethiopia and travel on a newly constructed road to the remote crash site. At a memorial service, each name would be read aloud.
More than anything, though, as they remember their loved ones, they are left trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.
In the frantic hours after the crash, as the news ricocheted around the world, families and friends of those killed fought through shock to make travel plans, racing to Addis Ababa in search of whatever they could find - information, belongings or remains.
They gathered in the Skylight hotel, a new complex built by Ethiopian Airlines to host passengers with long layovers. The hotel had just opened and was mostly empty. Protective tape still covered the elevator doors and many of the room fixtures. As distraught guests arrived, it became clear the losses cut across the globe. In addition to Ethiopians and Kenyans on the plane, there were Americans, Israelis, Chinese, Indians, Moroccans and more. Flight 302 was known as the "UN shuttle", covering a route popular with diplomats and aid workers.
At breakfast in the hotel restaurant, five Yemeni men sat sobbing, occasionally embracing. They had lost their friend Abduljali Hussein, who had fled the war in his native country and started a business in Nairobi. Initially, the grief-stricken mostly kept to themselves, stunned and separated by linguistic and cultural barriers. Paul Njoroge, a Kenyan businessman living in Toronto, could barely leave his room. His wife, three children and mother-in-law had been on the flight. He had bought their tickets.
Over the next few days, some of the families began to coalesce. They visited the crash site together. They met the chief executive of Ethiopian Airlines. And they eventually found one another online.
The niece of Marcelino Tayob, a UN official from Mozambique who died on the flight, started a WhatsApp chat with a few others. The group grew quickly, becoming a clearinghouse for information, anger and plans. The fact that the 737 Max was known to have problems haunts the families. To some, it is evidence that Boeing bears responsibility for the deaths of their loved ones.
"The second crash was corporate manslaughter," said Zipporah Kuria, who lost her father, Joseph Waithaka. "They knew what the issues were and they did nothing about them. If they had grounded the plane after the first crash, my dad would still be here." To others, the guilt is more intimate. Njoroge blames himself for not knowing about the problems with the Max.
"Sometimes I still go through the feeling that I killed my family," he said.
For Michael Stumo and Nadia Milleron, who lost their daughter Samya, the idea that a corporation turned a blind eye to safety was especially galling. Milleron is the niece of Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate who has spent his career working to hold companies and governments to account.
After the crash, Nader criticised the Federal Aviation Administration and what he called a broken culture at Boeing. "The plane cannot be refixed," Nader said in a television interview, suggesting that the Max never fly again. "It has to be recalled."
Milleron and Stumo became the most visible US family members, and were soon coordinating the efforts of other families around the globe. On April 29, Boeing held its annual shareholder meeting at the Field Museum in Chicago. Outside, friends and family of Samya Stumo staged a silent protest, holding pictures of her and a sign that read "Prosecute Boeing & execs for Manslaughter."
Across town that same day, lawyers from the Clifford Law Offices announced that they were suing Boeing on behalf of families who lost relatives in the crash, including Njoroge.
On July 17, Njoroge and Stumo testified before Congress. In his prepared testimony, Njoroge laid out a set of ambitious requests: an entirely new approval process for the Max, mandatory simulator training for pilots and an overhaul to the aviation regulatory regime.
That same day, Boeing announced it would set up a US$100 million fund to support the families and communities affected by the crash. But the pledge was vague and the timing angered families. Stumo said it "seemed like a PR stunt to us." There were more meetings, more vigils. At times it all blends together, a year consumed by mourning. "We have a little bit of amnesia," Stumo said. "The grief has affected our memory."
The families were back in Washington in late October. At a contentious meeting with the FAA, they accused the agency of being too deferential to Boeing. The next day, Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing's chief executive at the time, testified before the Senate. During the hearing, families stood behind Muilenburg, holding posters of the dead. After the hearing, Milleron confronted Muilenburg, calling on him to resign.
In the months since Muilenburg testified, the families have had some of their demands met. The Max remains grounded, and is undergoing an unprecedented level of regulatory scrutiny. Muilenburg was fired, and Boeing's new chief executive, David Calhoun, has pledged to be more transparent. Boeing said it would recommend that Max pilots train on simulators before flying the plane. The families will have a say in how Boeing's US$100 million fund is distributed.
Yet to the families, in many of the most important ways, little has changed. Their lawsuits against Boeing have not been resolved. Muilenburg walked away with US$60 million. While government officials have heard out the families, there is no sign that the Max will undergo an entirely new approval process. There is also little chance that the regulatory regime will be fully overhauled. Travellers could be flying on the 737 Max again this summer.
To Moore, none of it makes sense.
"It feels like some kind of Kafka novel," he said. "Nobody is listening to us." NYTIMES