Ethiopian Airlines crash: Echoes of lives lost emerge from devastation at crash site

Huge crater at Ethiopian Airlines crash site

Last Updated Mar 13, 2019 8:40 AM EDT

Near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — At least eight of the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines crash were confirmed Tuesday to have been Americans, including Melvin and Bennett Riffel from Redding, California. Melvin's wife Brittney is expecting their first child. Others who died include Mucaad Hussein Abdullah of Saint Cloud, Minnesota; New Jersey native Matthew Vecere; and Army Captain Antoine Lewis of Matteson, Illinois, who was doing missionary work in Africa.

CBS News correspondent Debora Patta visited the crash site in Ethiopia, where the plane came down soon after takeoff. Huge piles of dirt obscure a huge crater caused by the ill-fated Boeing 737 Max 8's nosedive into the ground. Mangled pieces of wreckage lie strewn across the site, which is now guarded by armed militia.

The sheer size and depth of the crater in the arid ground give a sense of just how powerful the impact was.

The two "black box" flight recorders of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 have been recovered from the wreckage, and will be the focus of the ongoing investigation into why the plane crashed.

Patta said the mood around the crash site couldn't have been more miserable Tuesday — mangled wreckage everywhere, and among the charred personal belongings of passengers and crew, reminders of the 157 people who died in the crash.

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Some of the collected possessions were piled into a large mound. Patta saw a tiny girl's purple fairy princess dress, a tattered copy of the children's classic "Anne of Green Gables." Nearby, a scribbled to-do list with cryptic reminders of important tasks: "book acc in New York City, and organize meetings with delegates next week."

Many of those on board the flight were young people who wanted to change the world. The United Nations lost 21 staff members in the crash — people who worked to improve the lives of others in some of the most troubled spots on Earth.

Brothers Bennett and Melvin Riffel from Redding, California, were on a world adventure before the birth of Melvin's daughter in May. Melvin's wife, Brittney, had been with them, but returned home after visiting Australia, while the brothers continued traveling. Melvin's friends say they will do everything possible to support his wife and baby. A GoFundMe page is raising funds to help Melvin's wife and baby.  

Crash scene investigators, including a team of Americans, were to comb the area for more answers Tuesday. Their job: to piece together what happened in the six minutes after takeoff that resulted in the devastating scene left on the ground outside Addis Ababa.

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