A regularly scheduled flight from Bole airport in Addis Ababa to Nairobi, Kenya crashed at 8.44am local time (5.44am GMT), after taking off at 8.38am. "She's not picking up her phone", said Wendy Otieno, clutching her phone and weeping.
The accident is likely to renew questions about the 737 Max, the newest version of Boeing's popular single-aisle airliner.
Police and troops were on the scene, as well as a crash investigation team from Ethiopia's civil aviation agency. A Boeing 737 800 MAX crashed on Sunday, the airline said.
"The pilot mentioned that he had difficulties and that he wanted to return", Tewolde told a news conference.
"Some of them, as you know, they are very distressed", he said. Among those were seven staffers of the World Food Programme; six staff from the U.N. Office in Nairobi; two each from the Office of the High Commissioner on Refugees and the International Telecommunications Union; and one each from the Food and Agriculture Organization, International Organization for Migration in Sudan, World Bank, and UN Assistance Mission in Somalia.
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The reason for the crash is not yet known. Besides the groundings by airlines in Ethiopia, China and Indonesia, Caribbean carrier Cayman Airways, Comair in South Africa and Royal Air Maroc in Morocco temporarily grounded their Max 8s.
"He expresses his profound sympathy and condolences to the families and loved ones of passengers and crew who lost their lives in this tragic accident" a statement from Ethiopian Airlines said.
GebreMariam also confirmed the company owns 6 other 737 Max 8 aircraft which are in service. The crash was strikingly similar to that of a Lion Air jet that plunged into the sea off Indonesia minutes after takeoff past year, killing 189 people.
Speaking at the inauguration in January of a new passenger terminal in Addis Ababa to triple capacity, the prime minister challenged the airline to build a new "Airport City" terminal in Bishoftu - where Sunday's crash occurred. "The villagers said that it was a plane crash, and we rushed to the site".
Ethiopia and China have grounded fleets of Boeing 737 MAX 8 after the crash. It has flown more than 1,200 hours. Wrenelle Stander, executive director of Comair's airline division, said that Comair "remains confident in the inherent safety of the aircraft".