Tears, anxiety and anger marked the mood at Four Points by Sheraton Hotel at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) where the families of those who lost their lives in the Ethiopian Airlines crash on Sunday morning converged.
Poor flow of information from the government, airport management and the Ethiopian Airlines raised the tension, with some of the at least 100 family members protesting at having been kept for nearly six hours without any briefing.
“The families have been forced to rely on information from social media, which is conflicting. Some indicate that four people survived while others paints a disastrous picture,” said Mr Robert Mutanda, whose brother-in-law was flying from Canada to Kenya via Addis.
At 8pm on Sunday evening, after hours of waiting, the authorities dispersed, without a word. By this time, nearly all families and friends of the victims have left the airport.
Even Kenya Aviation Authority (KAA) workers who had assembled at the command centre at Four Points by Sheraton hotel to assist with the identification process for family and friends also left.
Kenya Red Cross officials who were to offer counselling services to kin and friends had little to do after families dispersed.
A representative of the Ministry of Transport said that a press briefing will be conducted at 9am on Monday morning.
A distraught Mr Francis Thiong’i was kept in suspense regarding the fate of his daughter, Ms Florence Wangari, 30, a Catholic nun who had called in the morning to inform them that she was travelling on the ill-fated plane.
“Is my daughter dead or alive? We have not received any information from either the government or the airport. It is torturous being left in such suspense by the authorities,” the septuagenarian who had travelled from Nakuru to meet his daughter her, said.
Mr Isaac Lugi was at the airport by 9am, hoping for a reunion with his brother, who was en route from Canada and had contacted their sister minutes before boarding the ill-fated plane.
As anxiety mounted over the accident, Transport CS James Macharia said only Ethiopian Airlines and the Ethiopian government could provide information about the crash.
At a later briefing, he said he could not divulge much since the information was sensitive.
The situation was tense, with family members demanding to be given the list of the people who were on board. They had all been hoping against hope that their relatives had survived, but at 3pm, an Ethiopian Airlines public relations officer identified only as Rosana, informed them that all aboard the plane had perished.
“We send our deepest condolences to all of you,” she added.
“You have kept us here waiting as if we are inanimate objects without emotions. Just tell me those on board… tell me if my sister is dead and I’ll go and mourn at home. It’s not fun sitting here,” one of the people waiting said angrily, amid sobs.
Another accused the airline of trying to make the brand look good at the expense of pained relatives.
Reports had it that the families were first told that the plane had arrived, before being told minutes later they it was delayed, only for it to be removed from the arrivals schedule.
For the better part of the afternoon, emotions ran high, with screams and wails emerging from the lounge at the briefing room, and parking lot as the reality sunk for those whose worst fears had been confirmed by the heart-wrenching announcement
The Kenya Airports Authority has issued an emergency number 0733-666066, which the bereaved family members may call.
Last evening, a counselling centre had been established at the hotel, and the families and friends of the dead started streaming in from 3pm, as they awaited information from Ethiopia, which came shortly thereafter.
In addition, information by last evening had it that minutes after the Ethiopian Airline plane ET302 took off from the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, the pilot, Mr Yared Getachew, and First Officer, Ahmed Noor Mohammed, “reported difficulties” and asked to turn back. They did not make it.
Instead, the ill-fated Boeing 737-800MAX crashed near Bishoftu town, 62 kilometres from Addis Ababa, triggering global concern about the safety of Boeing’s best-selling jet. International news agency reporters said there was a massive crater at the crash site.
A witness was quoted saying that firefighters arrived at Bishoftu, an hour’s drive from Addis Ababa at 11am, but were unable to do anything since the plane was completely burnt by then,
“The blast and fire were so strong that we couldn’t get near it. Everything is burnt down.”
Additional reporting by John Kamau and James Kahongeh