The Emotional Wreckage of a Deadly Boeing Crash

Linda J. Dodson

They walked the corridors of Capitol Hill, carrying photographs of the children, spouses and parents they lost. They met with lawmakers and regulators, calling for changes they believed might prevent future deaths. And they mourned — alone and together, an international support group drawn to one another through shared tragedy.

In the year since the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, the families of the victims have become a political force, pressuring governments and companies to overhaul aviation safety.

And though they did not accomplish everything they set out to achieve, their presence — at corporate meetings, congressional hearings and the crash site itself — injected a potent emotional charge into a saga that has upended the global aviation industry.

The crash, on March 10, 2019, was the second time in five months that a new Boeing 737 Max had malfunctioned. The accident claimed 157 lives, including humanitarians, executives, students and retirees. Entire families were killed.

Chris and Clariss Moore of Toronto lost their daughter, Danielle. Ms. Moore usually called Danielle before either of them got on a plane. But they only had time to text before Danielle boarded Flight 302, on her way from Addis Ababa to the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi. An hour later, Ms. Moore got a call from a Canadian official telling her that Danielle was dead.

“When I heard that it felt like the whole world collapsed,” Ms. Moore said. “Did she call for me? Did she scream for us?”

A year after the crash, the families continue to call for more scrutiny of the Max, press for an overhaul to aviation laws and confront Boeing executives. At times, when the bureaucracy is all too much, their efforts can seem futile.

Yet they have found some solace in one another, renting houses together, holding vigils and staying in touch via WhatsApp. On Tuesday, many families will gather in Ethiopia and travel on a newly constructed road to the remote crash site. At a memorial service, each name will be read aloud.

More than anything, though, as they remember their loved ones, they are left trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.

In the frantic hours after the crash, as the news ricocheted around the world, families and friends of those killed fought through shock to make travel plans, racing to Addis Ababa in search of whatever they could find — information, belongings or remains.

They gathered in the Skylight hotel, a new complex built by Ethiopian Airlines to host passengers with long layovers. The hotel had just opened and was mostly empty. Protective tape still covered the elevator doors and many of the room fixtures.

As distraught guests arrived, it became clear the losses cut across the globe. In addition to Ethiopians and Kenyans on the plane, there were Americans, Israelis, Chinese, Indians, Moroccans and more. Flight 302 was known as the “U.N. shuttle,” covering a route popular with diplomats and aid workers.

At breakfast in the hotel restaurant, five Yemeni men sat sobbing, occasionally embracing. They had lost their friend Abduljali Hussein, who had fled the war in his native country and started a business in Nairobi.

Initially, the grief-stricken mostly kept to themselves, stunned and separated by linguistic and cultural barriers. Paul Njoroge, a Kenyan businessman living in Toronto, could barely leave his room. His wife, three children and mother-in-law had been on the flight. He had bought their tickets.

Paul Njoroge

Paul NjorogeAaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times

Over the next few days, some of the families began to coalesce. They visited the crash site together. They met with the chief executive of Ethiopian Airlines. And they eventually found one another online.

The niece of Marcelino Tayob, a United Nations official from Mozambique who died on the flight, started a WhatsApp chat with a few others. The group grew quickly, becoming a clearinghouse for information, anger and plans.

From those first tentative introductions, at least three different organizations have emerged. Ethiopian families started their own group. The French created the Association Flight ET 302. And another group of family members, drawn from several countries, formed the Flight ET 302 Families Foundation.

“They were an extraordinary group of people,” said Virginie Fricaudet, president of the French group, whose brother Xavier was among those killed. “It has to be said.”

In October 2018, nearly five months before the Ethiopian Airlines accident, Lion Air 610 crashed off the coast of Indonesia. All 189 people on board were killed. A faulty sensor on that 737 Max triggered a new automated system that sent the plane into a nose-dive.

Boeing pledged to fix the Max after the Lion Air disaster and began work on a software update. But regulators around the world let the plane keep flying, and Boeing maintained that the Max was safe. Only after the crash in Ethiopia was the Max grounded.

The fact that the 737 Max was known to have problems haunts the families. To some, it is evidence that Boeing bears responsibility for the deaths of their loved ones.

“The second crash was corporate manslaughter,” said Zipporah Kuria, who lost her father, Joseph Waithaka. “They knew what the issues were and they did nothing about them. If they had grounded the plane after the first crash, my dad would still be here.”

Zipporah Kuria

Zipporah KuriaTom Jamieson for The New York Times

To others, the guilt is more intimate. Mr. Njoroge blames himself for not knowing about the problems with the Max.

“Sometimes I still go through the feeling that I killed my family,” he said.

For Michael Stumo and Nadia Milleron, who lost their daughter Samya, the idea that a corporation turned a blind eye to safety was especially galling. Ms. Milleron is the niece of Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate who has spent his career working to hold companies and governments to account.

After the crash, Mr. Nader criticized the Federal Aviation Administration and what he called a broken culture at Boeing. “The plane cannot be refixed,” Mr. Nader said in a television interview, suggesting that the Max never fly again. “It has to be recalled.”

Ms. Milleron and Mr. Stumo became the most visible American family members, and were soon coordinating the efforts of other families around the globe. On April 29, Boeing held its annual shareholder meeting at the Field Museum in Chicago. Outside, friends and family of Samya Stumo staged a silent protest, holding pictures of her and a sign that read “Prosecute Boeing & execs for Manslaughter.”

Across town that same day, lawyers from the Clifford Law Offices announced that they were suing Boeing on behalf of families who lost relatives in the crash, including Mr. Njoroge.

“I stay up all night crying, thinking of the horror that they must have endured as pilots struggled to keep the plane flying for six minutes,” Mr. Njoroge said at a tearful news conference, imagining the last moments of his wife and their three children. “The terror that my wife must have experienced with little Rubi on her lap. Our two children beside her, crying for their daddy.”

Days after the Boeing shareholder meeting in Chicago, Mr. Stumo traveled to Washington. There, he met with officials from the Transportation Department, Congress and other federal agencies.

Around the same time, Ms. Milleron made an emotional trip to Canada. She and Samya had planned to travel together to Toronto in May to visit family. Ms. Milleron decided to go ahead.

Chris and Clariss Moore invited Ms. Milleron to stay at their home. She initially declined, before agreeing to stay for a couple of nights. It proved to be cathartic. That weekend there was a memorial service for Angela Rehhorn, who, along with the Moores’ daughter, Danielle, was representing Canada at the U.N. conference. Ms. Milleron and the Moores attended, and Mr. Njoroge joined as well.

Chris and Clariss MooreAaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times

Being with others who lost their loved ones on that flight helped somehow, and they arranged to take more trips together. The next month, Ms. Milleron, Mr. Stumo and Mr. Njoroge traveled to Washington.

Mr. Njoroge met with Mr. Nader, who had also been aware of the problems with the 737 Max before the crash in Ethiopia. Like Mr. Njoroge, Mr. Nader has experienced similar feelings of guilt for not telling his family to avoid the plane.

On July 17, Mr. Njoroge and Mr. Stumo testified before Congress. In his prepared testimony, Mr. Njoroge laid out a set of ambitious requests: an entirely new approval process for the Max, mandatory simulator training for pilots and an overhaul to the aviation regulatory regime.

That same day, Boeing announced it would set up a $100 million fund to support the families and communities affected by the crash. But the pledge was vague and the timing angered families. Mr. Stumo said it “seemed like a PR stunt to us.”

There were more meetings, more vigils. At times it all blends together, a year consumed by mourning. “We have a little bit of amnesia,” Mr. Stumo said. “The grief has affected our memory.”

Michael Stumo and Nadia Milleron, with their two sons, Tor and Adnaan

Michael Stumo and Nadia Milleron, with their two sons, Tor and AdnaanJames Estrin/The New York Times

In early September, members of about 20 victims’ families gathered in Washington for the six-month anniversary of the crash. They held a vigil outside the Transportation Department and met with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who broke down crying after hearing their stories.

Ms. Milleron rented a house on Airbnb where many families stayed. They spent days together, sharing meals and exchanging memories of their loved ones in between appointments on Capitol Hill. There was a shared sense of support, and over dinner in the evenings, even some laughter.

Then, in between meetings at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Ms. Milleron got a call. It was a firm handling the administration of remains recovered from the crash site. Samya’s were on the way home. Ms. Milleron collapsed.

“My knees buckled,” she said. “I couldn’t stand up.”

Security guards rushed to her side to see if she needed medical attention.

The families were back in Washington in late October. At a contentious meeting with the F.A.A., they accused the agency of being too deferential to Boeing. The next day, Dennis A. Muilenburg, Boeing’s chief executive at the time, testified before the Senate. During the hearing, families stood behind Mr. Muilenburg, holding posters of the dead. After the hearing, Ms. Milleron confronted Mr. Muilenburg, calling on him to resign.

In the months since Mr. Muilenburg testified, the families have had some of their demands met. The Max remains grounded, and is undergoing an unprecedented level of regulatory scrutiny. Mr. Muilenburg was fired, and Boeing’s new chief executive, David L. Calhoun, has pledged to be more transparent. Boeing said it would recommend that Max pilots train on simulators before flying the plane. The families will have a say in how Boeing’s $100 million fund is distributed.

Yet to the families, in many of the most important ways, little has changed. Their lawsuits against Boeing have not been resolved. Mr. Muilenburg walked away with $60 million. While government officials have heard out the families, there is no sign that the Max will undergo an entirely new approval process. There is also little chance that the regulatory regime will be fully overhauled. Travelers could be flying on the 737 Max again this summer.

To Mr. Moore, none of it makes sense.

“It feels like some kind of Kafka novel,” he said. “Nobody is listening to us.”

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