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.
In days that followed the crash, hastily issued news releases from stricken NGOs covered the spectrum of the global humanitarian community. Carlo Spini, Gabriella Viciani, and Matteo Ravasio had worked for Italian nonprofit Africa Tremila, according to a local newspaper. Joanna Toole, a UK-based ocean conservationist, was with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Jessica Hyba, a 43-year-old mother of two from Ottawa, had just taken a job in Somalia with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which also lost two other employees, Nadia Ali from Sudan and Jackson Musoni from Rwanda. “There were a lot of people on that plane who were working in extremely difficult situations,” said Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, who had known Hyba since she began as a volunteer at CARE in 2001.
Samya Stumo certainly fell in that category. During a college trip to Peru, Stumo had seen firsthand how government health initiatives were often so poorly designed that they ended up harming the very indigenous populations they were intended to help. Her later work, most recently with the nonprofit ThinkWell, had focused on bridging the gap “between policy and practice,” says her great-uncle, consumer activist Ralph Nader.
Stumo’s pragmatism had been apparent from an early age. Gifted academically (she taught herself to read at age 4), conversant in both Spanish and data analysis, Stumo had also gravitated toward more practical, hands-on skills — everything from raising livestock on the family’s farm to looking after older relatives. Family members say Stumo had enormous empathy, likely the result in part of the death of her younger brother to cancer when she was just 4. “Early on, she said she wanted to care for people in some way,” says her uncle, Tarek Milleron. “And she had plans early on — she always had plans, which is remarkable for this day and age.”
Nader, who had dinner with his great-niece just before she left the United States for Africa, shared his last image of her. “So she’s going out the door, she turns around with her radiant smile, and says “See you in April,’” Nader recalls, pausing. “And 20 hours later, she was dust.”
In the weeks that have passed since the crash of ET 302, families and friends have begun trying to move on.
For the Riffel family in Redding, the painful process has been eased somewhat by a tight-knit circle of friends and a deep Catholic faith. “They have a community that surrounds them that has just wrapped them up in its collective arms,” says Mangas of Susan and Ike Riffel. “That’s what gives us comfort and the belief that they are going to be able to take it a moment at a time and find their way forward.”
But for many, the healing process has also been about finding answers.
All disasters raise questions, but the controversies surrounding the 737 MAX — everything from the aircraft’s redesign to its certification by the FAA to the fixes Boeing proposed after the first crash — have made those questions more urgent and answers potentially more painful. “We want to figure out what happened with that plane,” said Mangas. “What could have been done differently?”
Many families have retained professional help in getting those answers. On Thursday, the Stumo family announced that it had filed a lawsuit against Boeing, Ethiopian Airlines and a parts maker. It is among several lawsuits filed by families of the victims of both crashes.
But those legal actions may take years to play out. In the meantime, families and friends have begun looking for answers on their own.
In Stumo’s family, the search has considerable weight behind it: Her parents are both attorneys; a cousin is a journalist who investigates corporate crime and, of course, her great-uncle Ralph Nader has been fighting for consumer safety since the 1960s, when he took on General Motors over its efforts to cover up the crash-prone Corvair. He has vowed to go after the 737 MAX with the same passion.
For others touched by the ET 302 tragedy, the quest for answers, though perhaps more modest, is no less determined.
When San Diego resident Megan Hoover learned that the crash had taken her friend, Matt Vecere, a writer who had been volunteering for humanitarian efforts since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, she tried to learn everything she could of the accident and the aircraft.
She parsed every news story, combed online pilots’ forums, read technical papers.
“I didn’t sleep,” says Hoover, who works at a technology firm. “I stayed up until 2 in the morning every night just on these forums, just trying to piece together what the (Boeing) software was, what the changes were, what were the aerodynamic principles at play, just to try to — as a nontechnical person — understand what everybody else was talking about.”
Her goal, Hoover says, is to somehow help change the regulations covering aircraft manufacturers so that “you’re not allowed to certify the safety of your own plane.”
Hoover isn’t sure yet how to achieve that aim. But she believes that opportunities for people like her will emerge in the coming months as more information about the crash comes out. “I feel like the idea will present itself,” Hoover says. “Maybe something will make sense. I just don’t want Matt to have died in vain.”
CORRECTION: Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 crashed on March 10, not March 11, as an earlier version of this article reported.