A story yesterday incorrectly reported that the National Transportation Safety Board said a decision on whether to turn the EgyptAir Flight 990 crash investigation over to the FBI would not be made before a new salvage ship completes its work. The board has set no specific time at which it will make the decision. (Published 11/22/99)

Egyptians hailed the American decision to gather more information before deciding whether to launch a criminal investigation into the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, calling the move a moral victory that should ease political tension over the probe, even if it does not affect the outcome.

No one wants to hide the truth, Egyptian officials said today, affirming that the Egyptian investigators working with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board will follow the trail objectively even if it leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that co-pilot Gameel Batouti purposefully drove the Boeing 767 into the Atlantic Ocean on Oct. 31, killing all 217 people aboard.

But for Egyptians--who feel the reputation of their pilots, their country and their religion is at stake--there is a critical difference between making such a determination after all the physical evidence has been examined and placing it under consideration early in the investigation by turning the matter over to the FBI for a criminal probe. The NTSB was on the verge of doing that last week, but has now backed off.

"The disappointment and the anger you felt at the street level and in the press was due to the fact that there was a prejudgment," said Nabil Osman, head of Egypt's State Information Service. "The full facts are not on the table and wild hypotheses are not required. . . . It affects the overall climate, and it adds to the suffering and the pain of the families of the victims.

"This will give the whole process credibility," regardless of the conclusion, Osman said.

The Cairo-bound jet took off from New York and crashed off the coast of Massachusetts after a violent, 33,000-foot dive.

A combination of factors--chiefly the apparent absence of any mechanical or weather-related problems, coupled with Batouti's apparent use of a religious phrase seconds before the plunge began--led transportation investigators to suspect he crashed the plane. They began laying plans to turn the matter over to the FBI, which must take charge of a crash probe under NTSB rules if murder, sabotage or other criminal activity is suspected.

Many in this Muslim society were offended that Batouti's religious utterance was a key factor in arousing suspicion of criminal intent, suggesting that a man considered to be a solid father, pilot and member of the community committed as his last act an offense that is unpardonable under Islamic teaching. Many Egyptian commentators disputed the inference, saying that if Batouti invoked God's trust, it showed he was in peril and trying to save himself and the plane.

Arguing that a cultural misunderstanding was pushing U.S. investigators toward a conclusion that Egyptians felt was not yet justified, protests were lodged and more Egyptian experts were brought into the process.

After the two teams consulted this week, NTSB officials said a decision on transferring the case to the FBI would be delayed at least until a salvage ship, which is not scheduled to arrive at the crash site until early December, finishes its work. It could take weeks to drag up the remaining wreckage, a step Egyptian investigators said must be completed to rule out other possible explanations.

That, Batouti's colleagues said, is as it should be.

"This is not a backtrack. It's the track we expected before," said Capt. Walid Murad, head of the Egyptian Airline Pilots' Association.

It will also buy time for tempers to cool, and the grief of family members to abate. Some Egyptian diplomats went so far as to characterize the controversy over the investigation as "dangerous," showing that, underneath the close governmental, political and military ties between Egypt and the United States, lies a readiness among Egyptians to believe the worst about America. As U.S. investigators focused on Batouti, Egyptian public opinion fixated on conspiracy theories in which the United States was trying to slander Islam and Egyptians to protect the Boeing Co., or conceal sabotage by its own military or Israel's.

In a culture that prizes its sense of dignity, and in which people are enjoined from saying anything bad about the dead, the early suspicions about Batouti seemed especially coarse. With the traditional 40-day Muslim mourning period still underway, Batouti's widow, children and finances were subjected to review and speculation by local and international journalists searching for a possible motive for suicide.

"He died once and we cried and mourned him," said Hisham Tehemar, 35, Batouti's son-in-law and an electrical engineer at Cairo International Airport. "Now with this big joke going on, he has died all over again."