ADDIS ABABA. The lavish swimming pool remained idle, the water rippling in the faint Addis breeze. The sumptuous buffet in the restaurant went untouched, the polished cutlery unused. A Chinese couple broke down in a corner of the expansive lobby, unable to contain the horror of emotions boiling inside their chests. Grieving strangers moved to comfort each other in hugs and uneasy embraces.
Counsellors lined the corridors.
Tension wafted to the high ceiling. And then there was pain. Such unspeakable, unimaginable pain.
Welcome to Skylight Hotel in Addis Ababa, where families of the victims of last Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines crash are being hosted. Dozens of Kenyans arrived here on Thursday hoping to return with the remains of their loved ones, but Ethiopian authorities had a bombshell announcement for them: There might not be any remains to bury. And they might not even be allowed to scoop soil from the crash site as a ritual of closure.
The grieving families were last evening coming to terms with the reality that there was nothing to take back home, hoping against hope that a miracle would happen.
Their Ethiopian hosts looked on as the tears turned into anger that quickly morphed into anxiety.
Every now and then the potent mix of fury and desperation would erupt into a confrontation within the hotel, which would swiftly be quelled by guards.
A Kenyan man whose wife was one of the 157 who perished in the Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 accident said he was tired of being hosted in a hotel.
He wanted answers, not hospitality, he said. “If there are no remains, they should allow us to carry soil samples from the crash site for funeral rights,” he added. The Nation is not naming the widower on his request because, he said, Ethiopian officials have warned relatives of victims against talking to the media.
“I do not want to disparage the hospitality, but we are concerned that the site is now cordoned off and we must get permission from the police to be allowed access,” he said soon after leading a walkout from one of the two-heated meetings yesterday that ended in chaos.
He said they were not told much in Nairobi, “only that we will be accommodated and flown here to be given answers, only to come here and not get any answers”.
“It’s been frustrating,” he said.
They will be accommodated in Addis Ababa for seven days, with the possibility of an extension on request. Their flight fares and accommodation are courtesy of the airline.
At the crash site near the small village of Bishoftu, 60 kilometres south of the capital, investigators were still gathering tiny pieces of what was left of the Boeing 737 MAX 8. Very little that could be used to identify the victims has been recovered so far.
Other than the plane debris, the crash site was strewn with torn passports, books, clothing, personal-care items, and a mobile phone that would not stop ringing.
A massive crater dug by the crashing plane suggested it had come down on a near-vertical trajectory.
A team of experts from Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States joined locals to collect almost anything at the site that might help experts piece together what happened. But their work is yet to provide most of the answers needed to comfort the grieving and increasingly desperate families.
“They should not tell us they are testing bodies; we know there is nothing,” one relative said. “Let them just tell us what they have collected and what they plan to do with it.”
Ethiopian officials were overwhelmed by the outpouring of anger and demands for answers from families of the victims, and at some point decided to suspend the first meeting.
Minutes later, they called a parallel meeting for Kenyans only, who lost the highest number of relatives in the crash, placed at 32 by the Ethiopian authorities. At the meeting, they were asked to give a team of scientists their DNA samples, but they refused, saying their concerns and demands had to be addressed first.
Journalists were barred from all the meeting areas yesterday. Cameras were not allowed into Skylight Hotel, owned by Ethiopian Airlines, where inconsolable family members are camping.
At some point, some of the family members walked out of the meeting in protest before they were convinced to get back in, the elephant in the room being how to identify their loved ones from near-nothing.
“The contentious issues are how they are going to identify bodies, whether the process has started, where the remains are, and whether relatives can see the remains,” said Mr George Orina, the deputy ambassador at the Kenyan Embassy in Ethiopia.
On arrival at Bole Airport, families were directed to a holding area before being led to the holding hotel, just five minutes away, where they were counselled and allocated rooms.
The airline said a panel made up of Ethiopian Airlines, the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority, and the Ethiopian Transport Authority had been set up to carry out the investigations, and that “once the identities of the deceased are identified, their bodies will be delivered to their families and loved ones”.
A Kenyan woman who was widowed by the accident when she was already mourning her mother was last evening stuck between travelling back to Nairobi to bury her mother and waiting for answers about her husband’s remains.