REDDING, Calif.– **UPDATE** Two of the eight Americans on board Ethiopian Airline Flight 302 that crashed moments after taking off from Ethiopia’s capital Sunday morning were residents of Redding, California.
Melvin and Bennett Riffel were brothers on vacation, traveling the globe as part of one great excursion to celebrate life according to several family friends. Initially, when the news of the crash broke, it seemed like merely a distant tragedy but soon became one much closer to home.
“At the time didn’t think I had any personal connection to it,” said Jake Mangas, a family friend and the CEO of Redding Chamber of Commerce. “It wasn’t till the afternoon yesterday when we heard from a mutual friend that Bennett and Melvin were on that flight that it becomes so much more personal and affects us so much.”
Mangas and his wife are good friends of Ike and Susan Riffel, the brothers’ parents, but have known the whole family for almost 15 years. He described how the brothers had different personalities but were always there to make others laugh.
“You knew that they were in the room. Just wonderful people,” said Mangas, “The entire family is just a faith-filled, wonderful example for so many people in Redding.”
Both men graduated from Shasta High School and Lynn Wheeler, another family friend whose son was best friends with Bennett, described the brothers as polar opposites but each wonderful in their own way.
“Bennett was a bookworm, number one, and super computer-smart but just this really great dry sense of humor,” she said.
Mangas also remembered how wonderful their characters were.
“Melvin – he’s a force to be reckoned with,” he said with a smile. “This is the kind of guy you just feel like you’re gravitating toward him.”
Melvin worked for Calfornia Department of Transportation’s District 2 office.
Caltrans issued a statement about the loss:
“Our Caltrans family is grieving the loss of Melvin (Mel) Riffel today. He was on vacation while onboard Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 that tragically crashed this weekend. He was a dedicated civil servant who worked for Caltrans for nearly a decade and our deepest sympathy and condolences go out to his family, friends and colleagues. Mr. Riffel served as a Caltrans Equipment Operator II in Redding’s maintenance division and most recently was on a special assignment as a Transportation Engineering Technician in Caltrans’ construction division. He leaves behind his wife Brittney and his parents Ike and Susan Riffel.”
– Caltrans Director Laurie Berman
Melvin also married his soul mate Brittney, according to Wheeler. She actually joined the two for a portion of the trip before returning to Redding as they continued their travels. The couple was expecting a child in the spring. Wheeler says they had plans to name her Emma.
“[Bennett] was so excited to go on this trip with his brother and to celebrate this great new adventure,” said Wheeler. “Of being a father and [Bennett] was going to be an uncle. They were just beside themselves.”
It’s that future and their characters that make this an especially painful loss for their many loved ones from Redding to the Rogue Valley and for their parents most of all.
“They’re trying… they’re trying to get through it,” said Wheeler. “But yeah, you just lose your whole family, in just an instant.”
Investigators are still looking into what caused the crash that was on its way from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Nairobi, Kenya. Flight recorders were recovered from the debris on Monday.
At least 35 countries had a citizen on board the flight. At least 22 of them were employees of United Nations-affiliated agencies.
So far, authorities from Ethiopia, China, and Indonesia have all grounded fleets of the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft that has been the jetliner of two crashes in the last five months.
A public prayer service will be held at St. Joseph’s Parish on Tuesday, March 12 at 8:15 a.m. People are encouraged to come and bring flowers.
NBC5 News Reporter Miles Furuichi graduated from Chapman University with degrees in English and Journalism. He received post graduate experience in Los Angeles in photojournalism and commercial photography. He also spent time in Dublin, Ireland working in print journalism and advertising.
Miles is a Rogue Valley native, raised in Ashland. He enjoys hiking, mountain biking and photography.