In an article yesterday on the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, a quote about the Egyptian government position on the investigation was incorrectly attributed. It was FBI Deputy Director Thomas J. Pickard who said, "I didn't know it could be any harder." (Published 12/11/1999)
A computerized analysis of EgyptAir Flight 990's cockpit voice recorder revealed no sign of an explosion or obvious sound of a mechanical defect, but the FBI so far has found nothing in the background of co-pilot Gameel Batouti that might have caused him to deliberately crash the plane, investigative sources and government officials said yesterday.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been unusually quiet for the past two weeks about the Oct. 31 crash off the Massachusetts coast that killed 217 people, partly because the complicated translation and analysis of the cockpit voice recorder has gone slowly and has so far turned up nothing dramatic.
But sources said nothing has been uncovered that would shake the general belief of U.S. investigators that for some reason Batouti cut off the autopilot and pushed the plane into a dive from 33,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean.
Many Egyptian investigators are equally persuaded that Batouti could not have done it, and have repeatedly challenged the ongoing analysis of the voice recorder and the flight data recorder, including an early preliminary determination that the co-pilot was alone in the cockpit when the jetliner's dive started.
The U.S. belief is grounded in an earlier analysis of the flight data recorder, which appeared to show the autopilot being cut off, a sudden pilot-induced dive and a series of odd actions, including a shutdown of both engines on the Boeing 767.
But the voice recorder appeared to show Batouti alone in the cockpit and uttering in Arabic, "I place my fate in God's hands." That led to numerous leaks pointing to Batouti as instigator of the crash and saying the safety board had decided to hand the probe to the FBI as a possible criminal matter, which angered the Egyptians.
[The investigation comes as a new report says the NTSB is becoming too dependent on experts from airlines and plane manufacturers in crash probes. Details, Page A4.]
In addition to the painstaking English-Arabic translation of the recorder, safety board engineers are analyzing a "sound spectrum analysis" of the recording. This computerized analysis of sounds, up-and-down pin strokes that look somewhat like a seismograph tape of an earthquake, can observe and analyze sounds that either cannot be heard by the human ear or seem confusing to listeners.
Among the benefits of a sound spectrum analysis is to spot explosions, what type of explosive, and sometimes even where it was on the plane. There were no such telltale marks on the EgyptAir analysis tape, or any other sounds that seem sufficiently out of the ordinary to be suspicious.
An investigative source cautioned, however, that the analysis of the recorder continues, partly to determine exactly who was speaking during the 30-minute recording.
Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Thomas J. Pickard, deputy director of the FBI, said in separate interviews that an extensive FBI investigation of Batouti in the United States and Egypt so far has turned up no information that would explain why Batouti apparently took the plane into a dive.
Both said Egypt is cooperating in the investigation. However, there was conflicting information as to just how hardened the Egyptian investigators and government had become to the possibility of a deliberate dive.
Asked if the Egyptian position was hardening, Pickering said, "I didn't know it could be any harder."
"The problem with a suicide is it's the actions of someone who is doing an irrational act," said one U.S. government official who did not want to be named. "The families always have a tough time. The co-workers didn't see it. Egypt is cooperating with the investigation. But I don't know if we'll ever be able to find something."
Leaks in the Egyptian news media, some of them apparently from Egyptian investigators in the United States, have sought to cast doubt on any evidence that Batouti committed suicide.
Last week, an Egyptian weekly, Rose El Youssef, quoted sources who said that the voice recorder transcript contradicts earlier reports bolstering the suicide theory, the Associated Press reported. It said the first translations were made by Lebanese workers at the CIA, not Egyptians.
The magazine Al-Musawir quoted from what it said was the transcript itself, showing that at least two other pilots or co-pilots were in the cockpit with Batouti at the time of the dive.
Holder said, nonetheless, "We are pretty satisfied with the progress that we are making and the cooperation that we have been getting from our Egyptian counterparts."
Holder said there has been greater focus on the facts of the investigation and less emphasis as time passes on whether the FBI or the NTSB is the lead agency in the probe. After Egyptian officials objected strongly through diplomatic channels to giving the FBI the lead role, the probe was left in the hands of the NTSB.
"We have to let the investigation proceed, and it might be something in the wreckage," Holder said. "You know, we might see something on the instrument panels. I don't know. I don't know exactly what might generate that ultimate decision."
The salvage ship Smit Pioneer was to have begun salvage efforts at the crash site today, but bad weather put the effort off until at least Monday. No decision has been made whether to spend the millions of dollars to lift most of the wreckage to the surface.
Staff writer Lorraine Adams contributed to this report.