Ethiopian air crash: Diplomat cheated death

Thursday March 12 2020

Ethiopian Ambassador to Kenya Meles Alem Tekea.

Ethiopian Ambassador to Kenya Meles Alem Tekea speaks at the UN premises in Nairobi at the commemoration of the victims of the 2019 Ethiopian plane crash. PHOTO | COURTESY 

AGGREY MUTAMBO
By AGGREY MUTAMBO
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Meles Alem Tekea, the Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya, was expected in Nairobi on March 10, 2019, aboard the ill-fated Ethiopian Airline Flight ET 302.

That plane crashed just moments after takeoff from the Bole International Airport in the capital Addis Ababa.

Ethiopian Federal policemen stand at the scene
Ethiopian Federal policemen stand at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on March 11, 2019. PHOTO | REUTERS

Having previously served as a senior official at Ethiopia’s Nairobi embassy, he was excited about returning to the city and this time as the head of mission, replacing Dina Mufti.

As he prepared to head to the airport in Addis Ababa on that fateful morning, his mother called and said she wanted to speak with him before he leaves for Kenya.

That call, he said, saved his life. It forced him to change his flight and book the next one, which was to depart an hour after flight ET 302. Later, he learnt that the plane had crashed.

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“I think my mother gave birth to me for the second time. I am living on bonus years,” he told The EastAfrican on Tuesday.

The events surrounding the crash make Mr Meles emotional, he admitted to The EastAfrican.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 was a routine shuttle between Addis Ababa and Nairobi, especially used by staff and guests of the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON). On that Sunday morning, with 157 passengers on board, it left Bole International Airport for Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The Boeing 737 Max8, piloted by Kenyan and Ethiopian crew, ascended into the skies only to crash six minutes later, boring a crater in rural Bishoftu, near Addis Ababa.

It became the biggest air crash on Ethiopian soil, having killed all 157 people, including nine crew, on board.

Diplomats at the UN Headquarters in Nairobi on
Diplomats at the UN Headquarters in Nairobi on March 10, 2020 observe a moment of silence in honour of the victims of Flight ET302 that crashed in Ethiopia the previous year. All 157 people on board were killed in the March 10, 2019 crash. PHOTO | COURTESY

On Tuesday March 10, 2020, as diplomats and senior government officials gathered at the United Nations offices in Nairobi’s Gigiri suburb to honour the victims on the first anniversary of the crash, Mr Meles recounted his experience and how it affected him.

“What we can learn from this incident is that not only a celebration, but also grief brings people together. Ethiopians became the spiritual-keepers of all the victims,” Mr Meles said during the commemoration. Later, he admitted that he had been reluctant to speak about the incident because of the emotional trauma.

The plane crash changed the lives of the victims’ families.

It also affected programmes at the UNON, as many of the passengers on board were travelling to Kenya to participate in the Fourth United Nations Environment Assembly from March 11-15, 2019.

The ceremony was attended by Kenya’s ambassador to the UN Office in Nairobi, Rose Makena, Undersecretary and Director General of UNON Zainab Hawa and Inger Anderson, the executive director of Unep.

Thirty-two people on board were travelling on Kenyan passports, the most number by nationality, although several others with dual citizenship were using their second passports.

Tuesday’s commemoration coincided with one held in Addis Ababa, marking the first anniversary of the crash. Preliminary investigations have since shown the autopilot system of the plane contributed to the crash.

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