By Paul Roberts
Seattle Times business reporter
It was sometime after midnight when Nadia Milleron heard the news about the Ethiopian Airlines flight that had gone down just after takeoff from Addis Ababa.
Milleron’s thoughts went immediately to her 24-year-old daughter, Samya Stumo, who had been scheduled to fly from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, Kenya, that same day, March 10 . Stumo, a health financing analyst, was headed for Kenya and Uganda to work on a Gates Foundation health initiative, and Milleron remembers thinking, “How can there be two flights to Nairobi in the same hour on the same airline?”
Locating her itinerary, Milleron saw that her daughter’s flight and the downed flight were the same — Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302. As Milleron struggled to comprehend what might have just happened, her body went into shock. “I just started shaking like a leaf,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Sheffield, Mass.
The next few days would be excruciating. There would be an early morning dash to JFK airport and a flight to Addis Ababa. Meetings with U.S. embassy officials and, finally, a surreal visit to the site of the crash, in an agricultural region 40 miles from the capital, where her daughter and 156 other passengers and crew had perished.
By the time the family returned to the United States a week later, the pain and shock were mingled with other feelings. As Milleron helped with the grim logistics of a funeral, her husband, Michael Stumo, and other family members were also reading the multiplying news accounts about suspected problems with the aircraft Samya had been on — Boeing’s new 737 MAX, which also had been involved in the Lion Air crash off the coast of Indonesia less than five months earlier, killing all 189 aboard. The more the family learned, the more their anguish was intensified by anger and a deep need for answers.
“Why did our daughter fall out of the sky?” Milleron asks. “We want to know. We want to know all the facts, all the details. Why did that happen? … Why did it happen twice?”
Samya Rose Stumo’s family is hardly alone in searching for answers.
Like the families who lost loved ones on Lion Air Flight 610, those now mourning the loss of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 face agonizing questions — questions that, if anything, have become even sharper as the MAX controversy unfolds.
News coverage of the two crashes has focused heavily on the technical aspects of the 737 MAX, and the commercial and political ramifications for Boeing and its overseers at the Federal Aviation Administration.
Beneath those stories of sensors, software and market share, however, the vastly more sorrowful human narrative has been slower to emerge. Airlines typically don’t release passenger lists after tragedies. But through interviews, scattered media accounts and obituaries, those stories are coming into sharper focus, and the collective heartbreak they reveal is staggering.
Like all “mass-casualty events,” the crash of ET 302 killed in ways that seem almost engineered to strike at our deepest vulnerabilities. Entire families perished. The community of Brampton, Ontario, lost six members representing three generations of the same family: Kosha Vaidya and Prerit Dixit, their daughters Anushka and Ashka, and Vaidya’s parents, Pannagesh and Hansini. “I lost my parents and I lost my sister,” Manant Vaidya, Kosha’s brother, told the Brampton Guardian two days after the crash. “I don’t have anybody else.”
Households were shattered, wedding vows dissolved. Anton Hrnko, a Slovakian historian and lawmaker, lost his wife, Blanka, son Martin and daughter Michala, according to his Facebook page. Pawel Konarski, a Polish engineer, lost his wife, Stella Osebe Mbicha-Konarska and their toddler son, Adam Mbicha Konarski, according to the Kenyan-based Obituary Kenya.
In Redding, California, Ike and Susan Riffel were stricken with the news that their two grown sons, Melvin and Bennett, would never return from a trip meant to celebrate of the coming birth of Melvin’s daughter. “These were their only children, lost in a moment, both of them in their 20s,” said Jake Mangas, a close friend of the Riffel family. Mangas recalled how, shortly after the crash, Ike admitted just how much he had been “looking forward to this next phase in life, watching his boys grow up.”
The crash of ET 302 cut deeply in other ways. Although the passenger list was highly diverse — fliers came from 35 different countries, according to Ethiopian Airlines — it tilted heavily toward people who were themselves intimately familiar with human tragedy.
Because Addis Ababa is the headquarters for the African Union and Nairobi is a center for United Nations programs, the air route between the two cities is heavily frequented by experts in disaster relief, conflict mediation, refugee aid and other humanitarian and environmental efforts. Many on board ET 302 worked or volunteered for humanitarian groups and institutions; some were headed to Nairobi for a session of the United Nations Environment Assembly.