Beirut: The pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed into the sea flew in the opposite direction from the path recommended by the control tower after taking off from Beirut in thunderstorms, Lebanon`s transportation minister said Tuesday.
But he cautioned against making any conclusions about the cause of the crash, saying it was far too early and investigators still need to find the black boxes.
All 90 people on board were feared dead after the plane bound for the Ethiopia`s capital, Addis Ababa, went down in flames minutes after takeoff at around 2:30 a.m. Monday.
Transportation Minister Ghazi Aridi said the pilot initially followed the tower`s guidance, but then abruptly changed course and went in the opposite direction.
"They asked him to correct his path but he did a very fast and strange turn before disappearing completely from the radar," Aridi said to a news agency.
It was not immediately clear why the pilot veered off the recommended path. Like most other airliners, the Boeing 737 is equipped with its own onboard weather radar, which the pilot may have used to avoid flying into thunderheads rather than following the flight tower`s recommendation.
"Nobody is saying the pilot is to blame for not heeding orders," Aridi said, adding: "There could have been many reasons for what happened. ... Only the black box can tell."
Ethiopian Airlines Chief Executive Girma Wake said the Lebanese minister`s comments were premature.
Lebanese officials have said there is no indication of terrorism or "sabotage."
A senior security official involved in the crash investigation said the black box would provide more definitive answers, but he noted that other factors — including weather conditions — are more likely culprits than anyone bringing the plane down on purpose.
"The probability of sabotage in these circumstances is much less than all other probabilities," he said, asking that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Aviation safety analyst Chris Yates said it was too early to rule out anything — including terrorism.
"Quite frankly you can`t say that at this stage," he said. "It`s a political statement at this point. You can`t rule out anything."
No survivors had been found more than 24 hours after the crash as rescue workers used boats with sonar equipment to search up to six miles (10 kilometers) out to sea. Emergency workers have pulled bodies from the sea; the numbers reported so far range from a dozen to more than 20. Several officials have revised their numbers, saying they miscounted.
The Lebanese army and witnesses say the plane was on fire shortly after takeoff. A defense official also said some witnesses reported the plane broke up into three pieces.
Searchers were trying to find the plane`s black box and flight data recorder, which are critical to determining the cause of the crash.
On Tuesday, rescue teams and equipment sent from the UN and countries including the United States and Cyprus were helping in the search. Conditions were chilly but relatively clear — far better than Monday, when rain lashed the coast.
Pieces of the plane and other debris were washing ashore, and emergency crews pulled a large piece of the plane, about 3 feet (1 meter) long, from the water. A rescue team member, Safi Sultaneh, identified it as a piece of a wing.
An aviation analyst familiar with the investigation said Beirut air traffic control was guiding the Ethiopian flight through the thunderstorms for the first two to three minutes of its flight.
The official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, said this was standard procedure by Lebanese controllers to assist airliners departing from the airport in poor weather conditions.
It is unclear exactly what happened in the last two minutes of flight, the official said.
Patrick Smith, a US-based airline pilot and aviation writer, said there were many possible causes for the crash.
"Had the plane encountered extreme turbulence, or had it suffered a powerful lightning strike that knocked out instruments while penetrating strong turbulence, then structural failure or loss of control, followed by an in-flight breakup, are possible causes."
Ethiopian Airlines said late Monday that the pilot had more than 20 years of experience.
At the Government Hospital in Beirut, somber families gathered outside, eager for any news of loved ones.
"We don`t have much hope left," said Adnan Bahr, a relative of 24-year-old Yasser al-Mahdi. "They`re all gone with the sea."