Frustration builds for Boeing Max plane crash families as they fight to have lawsuits heard in US courts

Rozina Sabur
Relatives comforted each other as they waited for news after the Lion Air plane disappeared - AP

Human remains and personal belongings were still scattered across the site of the Ethiopian Airlines crash a month after it happened, a relative of one of the victims has claimed. 

The London-based relative, whose sister died in the crash, told The Telegraph she was "horrified" to discover "what appeared to be an arm and a fragment of bone" when she visited the spot where 157 people lost their lives in March.

She shared photographs showing children's shoes and other personal effects lying uncollected on the ground, taken 28 days after the tragedy, she said. 

The relative, who does not want to be identified, also claimed the site wasn't properly secured with gaps in the perimeter allowing people and animals to "freely pass by" where the tragedy took place. 

"We're still barely managing to believe what's happened but on top of the tragedy to have also no respect at all to the families and the victims and have those items left on the land... it's outrageous," she said.  

The photos shared with The Telegraph show clothes and other personal belongings at the crash site

The claims raise serious questions about how the Ethiopian authorities have managed the aftermath of the tragedy and whether the investigation is as thorough as it could be. 

Contacted by this newspaper, the Ethiopian embassies in both the UK and the US declined to comment. 

The horror has added to a build up of frustration among victims' families following the two recent airline tragedies involving the Boeing 737 Max plane.

Victims of Indonesia's Lion Air crash, the first of the two involving the model, have launched legal action against the American aviation manufacturer for the wrongful death of their loved ones.  

Among them is Rini Soegiyono, whose younger sister Niar, 39, was killed along with her state prosecutor husband Andri Wiranofa, 41, on the flight on October 29. 

Ms Soegiyono, 52, who has been left to raise her nieces, aged just 11 and seven, believes Boeing owes her family and the others taking legal action an explanation for what went wrong. 

"The world is also waiting so it is important to know so that it will not happen again. We don’t want any other family to have to go through what we are going through,” she told The Telegraph

“We screamed, we screamed to the world. We had no experience before, we never thought that it will happen to us, to our family… because at that time, Boeing said that the plane is safe.”  

The growing number of Indonesian litigants are now fighting for the right to have their cases heard in US courts, rather than in Indonesia, where victim compensation is likely to be much lower. A decision on whether that right will be granted is imminent. 

Divers recovered the black box from the wreckage of the Lion Air plane Credit: Adek Berry/AFP

An apology issued earlier this month by Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s CEO, for the double tragedy, and his admission that a preliminary investigation into the Ethiopian crash revealed that both incidents involved similar errors in automated flight systems, gave victims’ families renewed hopes for justice. 

But Brian Kabateck, a high-profile California-based lawyer working on behalf of a dozen Indonesian families including Ms Soegiyono’s, said that Boeing owes the crash victims “much more than sympathy,” adding: “They deserve their day in a United States courtroom.”

Lion Air flight 610 disappeared from the radar screens 12 minutes after take-off and all 189 passengers and crew were lost. Less than five months later, on March 10, a second Boeing 737 Max jet, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, nosedived into a field six minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa leaving no survivors. 

Even after the second crash, Boeing insisted that the 737 MAX was safe, and “was willing to continue to gamble with the lives of the flying public” while furiously working behind the scenes on a software fix, Mr Kabateck alleged. 

Boeing declined to comment on the current litigation, referring The Telegraph to general public statements on its website.  

For the families of the Ethiopian Airlines victims, the ordeal continues as they await reassurances that everything possible has been done to recover the personal belongings of their loved ones.

More than 150 people were killed in the Ethiopian Airlines crash Credit: Eduardo Soteras/AFP

The relative said she travelled to the crash site on April 7, almost a month after the tragedy, to be put at ease that the site had been thoroughly excavated after seeing pictures of chaotic scenes in the media. 

But to her dismay, she claimed the area was not properly secured and victims' belongings had been left unattended and exposed to the elements. 

She described the personal horror of flicking through the debris looking for a trace of her sister, a young aid worker. 

"I spent almost two hours looking for anything belonging to my sister and that's the last thing I would wish for anybody. I literally searched every single spot to find something pertaining to her," she told The Telegraph

"We found what we believe to be remains of human bones, which were then handed over to the guards in a military tent, just outside the site of the crash," she said.

She added that to her shock the guards simply used a plastic bag lying on the ground to remove them, ignoring the "minimum standards and procedures" typically applied to the scene of a fatal accident.

"I'm concerned that for them [the authorities] the search is finished. It is distressing to see that all the items that can mean the world to a suffering family are still on the ground, just waiting to be collected rather than being searched for," she said.  

"There's a risk for the families of not retrieving anything from their loved ones' belongings."