Canadians demand accountability from Boeing as they grapple with wrenching loss of loved ones

Canadians demand accountability from Boeing as they grapple with wrenching loss of loved ones

Paul Njoroge winces as he recalls the large gash in a dusty field near Bishoftu, Ethiopia, that swallowed up the people most precious to him.

"There hasn't been a day where I don't think about me being in the same plane with my family," he said, speaking to CBC in Toronto. "Right from the start, I wish I was there with them."

He takes a deep breath, and begins to cry.

"I think about my wife there with the children and my mom-in-law, and [how] she knew they were going to die."

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed only six minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa on March 10. Flight data shows a terrifying pattern of ascending and diving in the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft before it finally plummeted to the ground.

Njoroge family
Njoroge family

All 157 passengers and crew perished, including 18 Canadians and at least four other permanent residents in Canada.

Njoroge's wife, Carolyne, six-year-old son, Ryan, three-year-old daughter Kellie, and eight-month-old daughter Rubi, as well as his mother-in-law, Ann Wangui Karanja, went down with the flight.

"It doesn't leave me that my wife and my children's flesh is out there in Ethiopia, mixed with the sand and the jet fuel and the pieces of the aircraft," he said. "[The image] never goes away."

Six families in Canada, including Njoroge, are suing Boeing and Rosemount Aerospace, which manufactured a controversial sensor in the 737 Max 8. The 14 wrongful death cases — one for each of the victims represented — allege Boeing was negligent and put profits ahead of safety when it rushed the Max 8 to market. Damages, if awarded, could run into the millions of dollars.

Boeing offers mediation

On Thursday, a U.S. legal team met Boeing in Federal Court. Boeing is offering to move to mediation, a first step toward settlement, rather than go to trial. But some of the families want a jury trial.

"There are families who insist on knowing what Boeing knew, when they knew it, what they did about it and what they're going to do about it to prevent events like this in the future," said Bob Clifford, an attorney representing families, at Thursday's hearing.

The families have also launched complaints against the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), alleging it neglected its oversight duty, with inadequate testing and inspections.

"They knew, or ought to have known, that the plane design was flawed," said Njoroge.

'We all fly on these planes'

Boeing is facing more than 100 lawsuits from passengers' families, shareholders and a group of Max 8 pilots. At least three U.S. agencies are inquiring into Boeing after two fatal crashes in four months.

On Oct. 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 plunged into the Java Sea, killing all 189 aboard. The flight path showed a similar climb and descent pattern as the Ethiopian Airlines flight, as pilots struggled to regain control over an automated flight system.

Investigations into both crashes are ongoing, but initial reporting suggests an angle-of-attack sensor was incorrectly indicating the plane was going to stall, initiating the Manoeuvring Augmentation Characteristics System (MCAS) installed in the Max 8. Pilots struggled to override the automated system.

Dave MacIntosh/CBC
Dave MacIntosh/CBC

"If Boeing can be allowed to manufacture planes that can fall from the sky, if the management dysfunction continues, the lack of internal oversight continues, to whom is it well? We all fly on these planes," said Njoroge angrily.

"It will never be well with me for the rest of my life, because I've lost my wife and my children."

In an email to CBC, Boeing said it cannot comment directly on any lawsuits. But it denies negligence and has expressed condolences, most recently at the Paris Air Show.

"We are very sorry for the loss of life as a result of the tragic accidents of both Ethiopian 302 and Lion Air 610. Safety is sacred in this company," said Kevin McAllister, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Chris Moore, whose 24-year-old daughter Danielle died in the Ethiopian crash, says "they're just words."

Questioning Boeing's safety policy

A birthday card from last year sits among a shrine of family photos on the piano in Moore's Scarborough, Ont., home.

Susan Ormiston/CBC
Susan Ormiston/CBC

Danielle Moore was a bright marine biology graduate, and one of four Canadians selected as young delegates to a UN assembly on the environment in Nairobi, Kenya.

"What is [Boeing's] safety policy? I'd like to know, because if they do put safety first, then this second crash would never have happened," said Moore.

This is what haunts the families. Why wasn't more done after the Lion Air crash? Why wasn't the Max 8 grounded then?

"When Danielle travelled, I never thought [to worry about the plane], never," said Danielle's mother, Clariss Moore. "And it was the plane. It was Boeing, the people who work around that, who failed us — failed every one of the 157 people on that plane."

A celebration of Danielle's life is planned for July. The Moores couldn't do it sooner, as the tragedy was still too painful and they were hoping to recoup some of her remains.

Dave MacIntosh/CBC
Dave MacIntosh/CBC

But none of the families has received any remains. DNA has been extracted from materials collected at the crash site, and a U.K. lab is in the process of matching those to DNA samples taken from the families. But it's a long process.

By mid-July, relatives will be able to search a secure online database of personal belongings found in the field.

Mohammad Ali's sister Amina Odowa and his five-year-old niece Sophia were killed in the Ethiopian crash. But he said that until the family repatriates some of her remains, "to me, honestly, she is still flying."

"We don't feel that she is gone until we for sure can say, 'That hand I can remember, you know, that nose, whatever is left, that's her' — and we haven't had that part."

'I don't trust them anymore'

Ethiopian Airlines has apologized for the delays and warned that some families will not get back any remains because the force of the crash was so catastrophic.

Boeing said it has completed a software upgrade and a revised training plan for the Max 8. But plans for a test flight are now delayed, after the FAA reported a new potential "risk" last week in simulator training.

Fixing that will take three months, says Boeing.

"How do we know?" said Ali. "We need some transparency. I don't trust them anymore, honestly."

Nearly four months after the crash, the grief is still fresh. Clariss Moore can't banish the thoughts of her daughter's last six minutes, between takeoff and the crash.

"I feel guilty breathing, because she's not breathing. And you just wonder what that six minutes looked like. How dark it was," she said, tears coursing down her cheeks.

"Was she with someone? Was she calling me? Was she thinking of me? Every morning, every night — it's always a struggle."

WATCH | Relatives of Canadians killed in Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 recount their personal experiences of loss and frustration at unanswered questions about crash that killed loved ones:

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