For the Canadian relatives of those killed when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed last March, it’s been a difficult but much-anticipated week — a first chance to hear directly, and at length, from Boeing.
And it didn’t end well.
At the close of the second day of back-to-back hearings in the U.S. Senate and House on Wednesday afternoon, John Hamilton, vice-president and chief engineer of Boeing’s commercial airplane division, stumbled as he was asked a simple question: When did the Ethiopian Airlines crash take place?
“March, uh. It was March …” he said before pausing, struggling to recall the exact date. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg sat beside him at the witness table, not offering it up either.
That stumble led to gasps and an audible outburst of sobbing from approximately 20 relatives of those who had died, many of whom were seated with photos of their loved ones on their laps, printed out on big squares of cardboard.
The congresswoman who asked the question informed him it was March 10.
Clariss Moore, of Toronto, who lost her 24-year-old daughter Danielle that day, broke out in sobs. Her husband, Chris, had his eyes turn red as he tried to contain his own emotions.
Also weeping was Paul Njoroge, who lost his wife, three children and mother-in-law in the crash. The Toronto man bowed his head as Joan Vincent, of Orillia, Ont., whose daughter Angela died, put her arm around him to comfort him.
“That made me cry because the date has never left my mind,” Njoroge said after the hearing had ended. “I feel like the year has not moved on at all since then.”
“The only time my heart dropped was when he did not know the date,” said Naheed Ismail Noormohamed. His father, Ameen, was also on Flight 302.
Eighteen Canadians were killed when the plane plummeted into the agricultural farmland outside Addis Ababa minutes after takeoff. A few more people onboard were on their way to becoming permanent residents.
The crash came just five months after another 737 Max aircraft — Lion Air Flight 610 — went down off the coast of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta on Oct. 29, 2018. The twin crashes together killed 346 people.
The 737 Max has since been grounded worldwide and Boeing has been fighting to repair trust with airline passengers, culminating in the company’s executives facing hours of aggressive questioning on Capitol Hill over the past two days.
The aircraft’s anti-stall system, known as MCAS, was a focus of the hearings; the system automatically and repeatedly pushed the plane’s nose down in both crashes as pilots fought for control.
Muilenburg acknowledged Wednesday that “we made some mistakes” when developing MCAS.
A total of seven Canadian relatives were at this week’s hearings. They sat among others who travelled from all over the world — Italy, Germany, Saudi Arabia — to finally hear Boeing answer some tough questions.
Gladys Kivia, of Calgary, lost her husband, Derick Lwugi, in the Ethiopia Airlines crash. She bought herself a ticket to fly down for the hearings in Washington, D.C., saying she desperately wanted to hear what the company’s CEO would say.
“No one [from Boeing] ever called me to say, ‘Gladys, I’m so sorry.’ It’s as if my husband’s life did not matter,” she said as she arrived at Tuesday’s hearing.
“Our people can’t just die like that. My kids are orphaned,” she said. “I want to hear what they have to say.”
By late Wednesday, she said she was more determined than ever to continue to pursue ongoing legal action against Boeing. At least six families in Canada have filed wrongful death lawsuits against Boeing and Rosemount Aerospace, which manufactured the controversial sensor in the 737 Max, alleging the companies’ put profits ahead of safety by rushing the jet to market.
“It made me feel how insignificant we are,” Kivia said. “He can’t even remember the date of the crash.”
Kivia had only buried her husband this past Saturday. It took investigators and Ethiopian Airlines seven months to match DNA to some of the remains, which was needed before they could invite the families to Addis Ababa to collect their loved ones’ coffins.
While Boeing’s CEO apologized to the families during the hearings, as well as in a private two-hour meeting onTuesday night, many said they were still left feeling that Muilenburg should resign.
“I have no confidence in him,” said Kivia. “I wish he would resign. I do not trust Boeing.”
Chris Moore put it more bluntly.
“There were three major incidents where Muilenburg did not give a rat’s ass: During the certification process, after the first crash and after the second crash,” he said.
Muilenburg has insisted he won’t step down, saying he is driven by childhood values instilled while growing up on a farm in Iowa to see through a tough challenge.
There were several moments over the two days of hearings where the victims’ families were front and centre. On Tuesday, they entered the Senate hearing solemnly and in single file, carrying pictures of their relatives or photos of their coffins.
Inside that hearing, they were at one point invited by Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal to stand and hold up the photos of their loved ones in the middle of the hearing. The full room turned to look at them and went silent.
And as Wednesday’s hearing was wrapping up, American Nadia Milleron, who lost her daughter in the crash, raced up to Muilenburg to ask a series of safety-related questions about the 737 Max.
“You have my personal commitment that we will make safety improvements,” Muilenburg said, standing face-to-face with her.
It may not have been enough for Milleron, who responded: “You talked about Iowa just one too many times and the whole group just said, ‘Go back to the farm.'”
Indeed, several of the Canadians who attended the hearings said they still believe Muilenburg should resign his post.
“You gotta leave and let someone else take over,” said Moore. “It is still, from my perspective, crocodile tears. Too little, too late.”