Families of the victims of the Ethiopian plane crash started to return home on Saturday as it emerged that they could receive between Sh17 million and Sh25 million for each person lost.
The exact amounts will vary due to factors such as age, profession and their position in life.
The amount could be more depending on the findings of ongoing investigation, especially if it is established that the airline was indeed at fault.
Ethiopian officials on Saturday refused to give any figures to families on what exactly to expect in compensation, only offering that it will be dictated by “international standards”.
Lucas Nzioka, who lost a nephew, told the Sunday Nation that Ethiopian officials told family members during a closed-door session that compensation will be guided by the Montreal Convention.
“We were told it could be between $170,000 and $250,000 depending on age, profession and so on. It should be done within 18 months,” Nzioka said.
Personal effects of the deceased as well as death certificates will be processed and issued to the next of kin within the next two to eight weeks.
“When one of us asked how much we shall be given as compensation at our meeting, the airline official did not give any figure but just told us it will be in line with international standards of compensation. I do not know how much that is at the moment,” Mr Kariuki Munyi, who lost his daughter said.
The Montreal Convention says compensation arises only if a passenger’s injury or death is caused by an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.
The Ethiopian flight ET 302 crashed last Sunday killing all the 157 passengers and crew on board. There were 32 Kenyans aboard the ill-fated plane believed to have been brought down by malfunctioning of the flight control system in the highest selling Boeing 737 Max 8 jetliner.
The Montreal convention anticipates two scenarios. The first provides for a minimum compensation that every passenger must be compensated as long as they were injured or died while on the plane. Currently this amount is at about $170,000 per passenger, which translates to about Sh17 million at current exchange rates.
The compensation process begins after identification of the victim is done. But since identification of bodies is going to be a nightmare for forensic experts given that there is no body retrieved from the crash scene, this is likely to take a while.
A seasoned Kenyan pilot told the Sunday Nation that every airline has an insurance policy for each passenger on board. He said currently, the insurance is about $170,000 (Sh17 million) for every occupied seat.
But if not satisfied by the compensation, a family can sue to get more but for such a suit to succeed, there must be evidence of pilot error or negligence on the part of the airline or its agents. If proven, the liability is unlimited.
But should Ethiopian Airline show that the accident is due to the wrongful act of Boeing or another third party, getting more compensation above what is provided for by the insurance from the carrier would be a Herculean task.
Some of the family members are considering getting a lawyer to help deal with the compensation issue. A number of lawyers are also already contacting family members to be part of the legal action should the matter end up in court.
“The carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of death or injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking,” the convention reads in part.
Six other families the Sunday Nation spoke to said they did not know how much they will be paid, with only one saying they have gathered it would be about Sh20 million or less.
Forensic experts have collected over 5,000 tiny pieces of human remains left from the deadly crash last Sunday. Most are just fragments the size of a small finger to small bones. The biggest part is understood to be an arm.
Yesterday at a closed-door briefing with the family members, Ethiopian officials said DNA results would be announced between five to six months from the date the sample is collected. This means they will have to wait until August to know the findings.
DNA samples are being collected at Skylight Hotel in Addis Ababa. Those who cannot make it to Ethiopia have been asked to visit any point of origin through the Ethiopian Airlines Group (ETG) international offices closest to them.
Personal belongings of the deceased will also be returned to the next of kin after proper verification within two months.
Some of the things found apart from pieces from the plane wreckage include torn passports, mobile phones and national identification documents. There were also some computer accessories including a keyboard belonging to one of the victims and papers believed to have been separated from a book by the impact.
There were also business cards, in many languages, pieces of shredded clothing and a host of personal care items.
A look at the crash site near Bishoftu, south of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, suggests that the plane could have come down at a near vertical trajectory and slammed into the ground causing a deep crater just six minutes after take off.
Death certificates will be issued in the next two weeks and will be dispatched to immediate next of kin addresses given. Those departing earlier will be given temporary letters of evidence. The airline says it will continue facilitating site visits upon the request of victim families until May.
“Families can take soil from the crash site and a letter will be issued from the Ethiopian Airlines attesting the same for custom’s clearance at the airport,” an advisory note issued by the airline to the families of the victims seen by the Sunday Nation reads in part.
The airline also said it will give refunds for incidental payments to cover out of pocket expenses incurred by relatives of the victims. The payments will be done through bank transfers or at the destination convenient to families.
“Incidental payment will be made to the next of kin (father or mother or spouse or children),” the notice reads.
An original and copy of birth certificate or marriage certificate and passports will be required. Representatives from the concerned embassy shall appear as witnesses.
“Families who couldn’t fulfil the above mentioned requirements can get similar service at their respective or nearest area office of Ethiopian Airlines,” the notice adds.
The families yesterday started travelling back home having received the letters to help process death certificates and burial permits.
“We are going to get urns around here and package the soil we picked from the crash scene. After this we have no other business but go home and do a burial,” Nzioka said. His nephew, Bernard Musembi died in the crash.
He said the family plans to conduct a mock burial next Saturday in Mwala, Kabaa.
Meanwhile, new piece of evidence has been found that shows the similarities of the Ethiopian Airlines crash and that of the Lion Air flight that fell in October last year.
The device known as the jackscrew found in the wreckage suggests that the pilot may have had a problem with a new flight control system.
The jackscrew indicates the jet was configured to dive and this is what may have caused the accident last week. Reports indicate that in the last moments, Captain Yared Getachew reported in a calm voice that he was having a flight control problem. He then asked to be cleared to return. This time his voice was panicky.
According to the New York Times, a source who had reviewed the communications from flight 302, said the pilot told controllers: “Break, break, request back to home.”
He was allowed to return but this never happened.
Other theories being pursued include a malfunctioning of the software that made the pilot unable to control the plane.
In France, aviation investigators began working on Friday after receiving the heavily damaged data voice recorders as they attempt to figure out what went wrong. Their task will be to reconstruct the six-minute flight from Bole Airport before the plunge.