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One Year After Boeing 737 Max Crash in Ethiopia, Families' Patience Is Tested

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03/05/2020 | 11:46am EDT

By Alison Sider and Alexandra Wexler

GARA BUKAN, Ethiopia -- In the remote fields where an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max crashed a year ago, the ground is still littered with shards of metal, bolts and colorful bunches of wires that once kept Flight 302 aloft. A solitary hiking boot protrudes from the ground.

"It's a graveyard," said Nadia Milleron, whose daughter Samya Rose Stumo died there on March 10. Ms. Milleron received her daughter's remains in 122 formaldehyde-soaked bundles with labels like "arm," or "hair." Some relatives didn't even get that much.

The grieving families of the 157 dead want to mark that ground with a permanent memorial and a paved road to reach it. They envision a hospital or school to benefit local people who helped collect pieces of the wreckage and remains. Many will travel on Boeing Co.'s dime to Addis Ababa to commemorate the first anniversary of the crash next week.

The result is that families are caught in a grim partnership with the two companies that have been the source of their pain.

Nobody involved has a playbook to follow. The families, spread over some three dozen countries, are still reeling from their losses. Ethiopian has never had to deal with a tragedy of this magnitude, and Boeing has little experience working directly with families of crash victims.

Boeing has been slow to acknowledge the role its design and engineering mistakes played in the Ethiopian disaster and the similar accident off the coast of Indonesia less than five months earlier. Families have filed more than a hundred lawsuits accusing Boeing of disregarding human lives and of putting profits over safety when it developed the MAX and when it opted not to ground the plane after the first crash.

In court filings Boeing has denied the allegations. "Safety is at the core of everything we do at Boeing," a spokesperson said. "We do not trade safety for lower cost, because without safety and quality, we don't have a business."

The company has engaged victim-compensation attorney Kenneth Feinberg to disburse $50 million in direct payments to families of the 346 people who died in the two crashes, and to oversee the distribution of another $50 million to assist communities affected by the crashes. The memorial discussions are taking place apart from this.

To make any of their hopes for a crash site a reality, the families need Boeing's money and the airline's cooperation. Accepting either means having their lives inextricably bound to these companies for possibly years to come.

"It's not easy to sit with them at a table and just start talking like nothing has happened," said Samira Eissa, whose 49-year-old father died in the crash. Ms. Eissa, 22, has been juggling planning meetings for the anniversary with her studies in Augsburg, Germany. "But as I see it, those are the people who put harm to us...so those are the ones who should be paying for that damage."

A planning session to commemorate the first anniversary of the crash took place in late January in Ethiopian Airlines' Addis Ababa headquarters. The conference room looked out onto the airport where the doomed flight originated.

As the date drew near, Emmy Auma Odero was afraid of what she might do when she came face-to-face with representatives from Boeing and the airline. Her sister Immaculate Achieng Odero was 29 when she died in the crash, leaving behind a 3-year old daughter. Though the sisters were a decade apart in age, they were as close as twins, she said.

"I talked to my mom. I told her pray for me, because I don't know how I'm going to face these people -- look them in the eye, sit across from them," she said. "I was very, very angry. And I'm still angry."

Nine volunteers who lost siblings, parents and others spent hours with executives from Boeing's government arm and a handful of Ethiopian Airlines officials.

Some relatives were upset about Ethiopian's proposal to hold an international design competition for a physical monument at the site of the crash, including prize money and a panel of professional judges. The families said the process Ethiopian had outlined seemed rushed -- as if the carrier was trying to put the incident behind it. They wanted to have more to say about the memorial's design, and argued they weren't being given enough time to weigh in.

At the meeting, Boeing's Tim Keating, executive vice president of government operations, stepped in, according to people in attendance, telling the Ethiopian executives that their plans were moving too quickly for many of the families.

Ethiopian Airlines executives acknowledged that communications between the airline and the families of the victims were shaky at first. "Ours is a balancing act. I think maybe at the beginning we should have seen that there were going to be challenges," said Kagnew Fisseha, vice president of holidays and digital sales for the airline, who is acting as a spokesman for Ethiopian. The memorial plans were paused.

Even logistical meetings have turned emotional, said Allan Jaboma, a Kenyan who lost his sister, who had been on her way home from a pediatric oncology conference. Nearly everyone cried at the first conference call of the committee working on the memorial, he said.

"It's nagging and we can't move on. Because we have to see all this through," Mr. Jaboma said.

As the anniversary looms, the parties have clashed over travel arrangements. Some families pushed back against Ethiopian's initial proposal to include just two guests per victim. Boeing agreed to cover travel costs for four. Some have said they would rather not travel to the event on Ethiopian Airlines, or that they want to avoid Boeing jets.

"It's going to be the hardest trip I've ever taken," Ms. Eissa said.

A person familiar with Boeing's planning said the company was able to accommodate many of the requests.

Boeing representatives who have worked most closely with the families are making sure other company employees are aware of the crash's emotional toll. "We're telling these stories across Boeing, we're letting [Boeing employees] know, and that there are consequences. That this is a big deal," said Mr. Keating, who also oversees Boeing's charitable activities.

Some of the sharpest conflicts have been with Ethiopian Airlines. Many didn't receive remains for seven months and fault the airline for being slow to sweep the site again when summer rains brought additional bones to the surface.

Last fall, Ethiopian filled in the crater at the site of the plane's impact, burying coffins containing the remains too small to be identified. Families were notified a day or two in advance -- almost nobody was able to make the trip in time to witness what they considered to have been a funeral for the dead.

"We want to know every step," said Konjit Shafi, whose 31-year-old brother Sintayehu -- the family's primary breadwinner -- died in the crash while on his way to a recertification course in Nairobi for his job at an automotive company. "I need them to be closer to the families than this and update us more often."

Ethiopian's Mr. Fisseha said the victims' remains were identified as quickly as possible through DNA tests. "The identification process was really difficult," he said.

Roland Rehhorn and Joan Vincent, whose 24-year-old daughter Angela Rehhorn died in the crash on her way to attend a United Nations meeting on the environment, traveled from their home in Ontario to Washington last year to meet with Boeing executives, including then- CEO Dennis Muilenburg.

"I remember sitting in that room with Dennis Muilenburg, and I remember thinking, 'this is really weird,'" Ms. Vincent said. "I was in conflict sitting there," she said.

"It's kind of confusing," Mr. Rehhorn said. "You're kind of litigating against them, but yet they're there to help."

At the meeting in Washington, family members held enlarged photos of their dead relatives. Paul Njoroge, a Canadian who lost his wife, three young children, and his mother-in-law, displayed only pictures of their caskets. "I told them that the faces of my wife and children did not matter to them," Mr. Njoroge said. "I said they should look at those coffins and think about the pain, anguish and devastation they caused me."

Families of victims are hoping to use a portion of the $50 million Boeing has set aside for community assistance to build a hospital or high school and to improve access to drinking water or electricity for the benefit of local residents near the crash site.

Demoze Wodajo, the top government official for the district, said the community is starting to worry about the delays. "We have been discussing, but Ethiopian is not confirming back whether projects will be implemented or not," he said. "Ethiopian always responds that they will consider the projects."

Though they have agreed to work together for now, the families remain at odds with Boeing. Many relatives have said they want to keep the MAX from ever flying again. Some have met privately with top officials at aviation regulators in the U.S., Canada and Europe to push for stricter scrutiny of the plane. They have blasted Boeing's current and former leaders as culpable for the crashes.

Boeing has already removed Mr. Muilenburg, who led the company during the crashes, and has taken other steps aimed at strengthening its engineering and safety processes. Still, some family members have publicly called for new Chief Executive David Calhoun or other board members to resign.

Several remain skeptical of the company's motives. "Anything being done in honor of our loved ones should not be done as a way for corporations to earn their community badge or rehabilitate their reputation," said Zipporah Kuria of the U.K., whose father died in the crash.

Boeing executives involved in the company's efforts say they aren't trying to score public-relations points, but to ensure the families continue to have a role.

(MORE TO FOLLOW) Dow Jones Newswires

03-05-20 1145ET

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ChangeLast1st jan.
BOEING COMPANY (THE) -1.06% 137.53 Delayed Quote.-57.78%
DNA OYJ 0.00%End-of-day quote.-0.10%
TELENOR ASA -0.03% 143.3 Delayed Quote.-8.70%
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