Hours in purgatory as families wait for news of Ethiopian Airlines crash

NAIROBI (Reuters) - More than three hours after Ethiopian Airlines tweeted that there were no survivors from flight ET302 to Nairobi which crashed on Sunday, authorities finally began informing families waiting in Kenya.

Slideshow ( 4 images )

Many had already spent hours at the airport, frustration turning to fear as social media began to light up with news of the crash.

“They’ve told us nothing, absolutely nothing,” wept Ginny Muhu, 57, who was waiting for her fiance George Kamau. “I’m not even sure if I want to know.”

Elegantly-dressed Mercy Lwugi, 40, was waiting for her brother Derrick and began phoning his family in Canada when she saw news of the crash on Facebook.

“We have been waiting since morning...on the board they had written that (the flight) had landed at 10:15 but after some time they removed it,” she said.

Families huddled together in the terminal, whispering and peering at their phones but some only heard about the crash when journalists started to arrive.

News of the crash emerged at 10:50 local time when the Ethiopian prime minister’s office tweeted condolences to families who had lost loved ones. The airline, which had not at that point issued any information, was left scrambling to catch up.

Kenyan transport officials eventually arrived at the airport at 1:30 p.m., five hours after the plane went down, but had little information to add. James Macharia, the cabinet secretary for transport, said he heard about the crash via Twitter.

Families were bussed to the downtown Sheraton hotel. Some wept softly but others sat stoically at tables, awaiting official news.

As the hours passed, victims were named on Twitter: an Italian archaeologist, a Somali civil servant, United Nations staff and a restaurant mogul, football coach and aviation workers from Kenya.

Around 5 p.m., as authorities confirmed there were no survivors, liaison officers began circulating discreetly around the hotel, with flags and signs indicating which country or organization they came from. Distraught relatives poured into the car park, gasping and sobbing in each other’s arms.

Wendy Otieno had been waiting with her sister to welcome home their mother.

“It’s a shock. It’s just a shock,” she wept before collapsing with a wail.

Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Kirsten Donovan