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217 Feared Dead in EgyptAir Crash
By Guy Gugliotta and Lynne Duke
An EgyptAir 767 jetliner flying from New York to Cairo plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean off Nantucket Island early Sunday with 217 people aboard, among them dozens of American tourists. Searchers found debris and human remains, but no survivors.
President Clinton and other U.S. officials said there was no indication of foul play in the crash of EgyptAir flight 990, but the FBI, as well as police from various jurisdictions, were opening investigations into the plane's passengers and cargo.
The flight originated in Los Angeles, reached New York's Kennedy Airport at 12:48 a.m. (EST) Sunday, refueled and took off for Cairo at 1:19 a.m. (EST). National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall said controllers heard a "routine" communication from EgyptAir 990 at 1:43 a.m., and took an altitude reading of 33,000 feet at 1:50 a.m.
But in the next 36 seconds the plane dropped precipitously to 19,100 feet, a rate of descent of 23,200 feet per minute. Hall said controllers watched radar images for an additional minute before the plane disappeared from the screen and crashed at 1:52 a.m. in 270 feet of water, about 60 miles south of Nantucket.
Coast Guard cutters and military aircraft scrambled from bases up and down the east coast to initiate a systematic surface search. By mid-afternoon, there were 11 aircraft and four cutters combing the area, Coast Guard Adm. Richard Larrabee said.
The aircraft broke off the search at dusk, but the ships lingered in the area. Search conditions were optimal, with negligible wind and seas and visibility at nine miles. The Coast Guard warned, however, that it was doubtful anyone could survive for more than 12 hours in the 58-degree waters at the crash site.
An underwater investigation was expected to begin late Monday with the arrival of the Navy salvage ship, USS Grapple, and a team of Navy divers. Only then will investigators be able to begin looking for the two so-called "black box" flight recording devices that might give them clues to EgyptAir 990's fate.
Larrabee said the Kings Pointer, a vessel operated by the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, found the plane's oil slick early Sunday and recovered one dead body, two partially inflated life-rafts, empty life vests, pieces of seats, clothing and various bits of paper and other paraphernalia, including passports.
Coast Guard authorities said both human remains and debris would be taken to a military facility at Quonset, R.I., where the National Transportation Safety Board will reassemble the aircraft.
The EgyptAir 767 was built in 1989 and came off Boeing's Everett, Wash., assembly line about two weeks before another 767 that crashed in a jungle in Thailand, killing 217 passengers. Boeing spokeswoman Debbie Nomaguchi said it was "way to early" to look for a causal link between the two tragedies.
U.S. and Egyptian authorities listed 199 passengers aboard EgyptAir 990, including two infants, along with 15 crew members and three non-paying EgyptAir employees. By late afternoon, 185 families had been notified of the crash, authorities at Kennedy Airports said.
EgyptAir said the passengers included 62 Egyptians, three Syrians, two Sudanese and a Chilean. Most of the rest were believed to be Americans, including two tour groups, one of them a 54-person contingent sponsored by Boston-based Grand Circle Travel.
U.S. authorities set up a crisis center at the Ramada Plaza Hotel on the edge of Kennedy Airport. There, beneath the periodic swoosh and boom of arriving and departing aircraft, relatives began to gather at 7:20 a.m.
Three airport chaplains quickly arrived, to be assisted later by five Muslim clerics. "Nobody knows anything. Everybody is sad," said Ashrafuzzaman Khan, president of the New York-based Islamic Circle of North America. "We have to put our faith in God."
In one strange irony, the lone Los Angeles passenger who got off the EgyptAir plane in New York was grief consultant Edward McLaughlin, who had been conducting a seminar for EgyptAir's Los Angeles employes on coping with loss and bereavement.
Law enforcement sources confirmed they had questioned McLaughlin about his movements, but by early afternoon he was explaining to reporters that we "work with EgyptAir to try to help the families with the notification process," he said. "At the moment we're struggling to get everything together."
In Cairo, airport officials converted a terminal restaurant into an information center and counseling service. Women and men wailed, wept and comforted one another. "We are just like everyone else, waiting for explanations from the states," said one airline official, who would not give his name.
The EgyptAir tragedy followed by only three months the fatal crash of a single-engine aircraft piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr., who died with his wife and her sister in the North Atlantic when the plane plunged into the ocean off nearby Martha's Vineyard.
And both Swissair Flight 111, which crashed off Nova Scotia in September 1998, with 229 people aboard, and TWA Flight 800, which exploded above Long Island in 1996, killing 230 people, were taking roughly the same trans-Atlantic route as EgyptAir 990.
The TWA investigation was marked by periodic turf skirmishing between the Safety Board and the FBI until investigators ultimately determined that the crash was likely caused by overheating of a fuel tank.
Sunday, Hall quickly took control of the EgyptAir probe, noting that the Egyptian government, which had original jurisdiction over any EgyptAir crash in international waters, had asked the U.S. government to "take the lead."
Investigators stressed that their efforts had just begun and cautioned that results may be slow in coming: "You will undoubtedly hear many reports of what caused the crash of flight 990," Hall said. "All of these reports will be speculative."
In Boston, the FBI's Barry Mawn confirmed that agents were opening their own investigation, which he described as standard procedure, although "there is no indication of any criminal activity at this time."
This view was echoed by President Clinton, who told reporters after attending Church services Sunday that "we have no evidence of that [foul play] at this time, and I think it's better if people draw no conclusions until we know something."
Still, FBI Washington spokesman John Collingwood said it was important for federal agents to look for clues by reviewing passenger manifests and the activities of maintenance workers or anyone else who had "any unauthorized contact" with the airplane. The FBI was being assisted by New York City police and officers from Los Angeles Airport and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
"It is done to preserve information that might be relevant should a finding of a terrorist act be made at some point," Collingwood said. "You are looking for anything that might reflect on whether it was or it wasn't."
Like most other airlines in the Middle East, EgyptAir is a state-owned company that concentrates on flights within the region, operating only a limited number of routes outside the area.
Despite the lack of evidence of foul play or terrorism, however, that possibility loomed large in the minds of Egyptians and local diplomats as news of the crash spread around town.
In 1985, an EgyptAir plane flying from Athens to Cairo was hijacked by radical Palestinians, and dozens of passengers died when Egyptian security forces stormed the plane after it landed on the island of Malta.
And for much of this decade the country has faced an uprising by Islamist militants who have proved themselves capable of well-planned attacks on tourist sites around the country.
Joe Valiquette, an FBI spokesman from the New York office, confirmed that the Federal Aviation Administration had issued a Sept. 24 "information circular," warning it had received information that a bomb would be placed aboard a plane leaving Los Angeles or New York.
But the source of the threat was "a gentleman in custody in Italy for a homicide," Valiquette said. Another knowledgeable source said the informer had a history of promulgating false bomb threats and was currently in jail on suspicion of killing his girlfriend.
Knowledgeable aviation sources also said that the fact that at least one radar station was picking up signals from EgyptAir 990 up until the last two minutes before the crash indicated that the plane had not lost electrical power until the very end.
The sources pointed out that while controller radars can fix a jetliner in two dimensions, they must have a transponder signal from the aircraft itself to determine altitude. TWA 800's transponder went dead immediately after the explosion that destroyed it.
Boeing's 767-300ER (for Extended Range) is a two-aisled, "wide-bodied" aircraft that can carry up to 218 passengers. It can fly as much as 7,080 miles without refueling, and its great range makes the plane a popular choice for trans-Atlantic flights.
In the 17 years since the 767 went into service, the plane has carried about 813 million passengers on more than 3 million flights, with only two fatal accidents.
One, in 1996, occurred when a hijacked Ethiopian Air 767 crashed on landing at the Comoro Islands, killing 127 of 172 people aboard, including the hijackers.
But the other, above Bangkok airport on May 26, 1991, involved a Lauda Air 767 that had come off Boeing's Everett, Wash., assembly line only two weeks after the EgyptAir plane.
Boeing's Nomaguchi confirmed that the EgyptAir 767 was the 282nd built by the company, in September 1989, while the Lauda Air plane was number 283, completed just a few days before union machinists at the company went on strike.
The Lauda Air 767 had just taken off from Bangkok and had climbed to 10,000 feet when a engine braking device called a "thrust reverser" accidentally deployed, causing one of the plane's two jet engines to change direction and pull the aircraft into a twisting, fatal dive.
"We took several aggressive steps" to ensure the safety of the engines following the Lauda Air crash, Nomaguchi said. Boeing developed a detailed inspection process and shipped "retrofit kits" to 767 owners that contained a third independent locking device for the thrust reversers.
Nomaguchi said the company doesn't keep data on which aircraft had been retrofitted but cautioned that "it's really too early to put any kind of significance on how close those airplanes are in production."
Gugliotta reported from Washington; Duke from New York. Staff writers Liz Leyden in New York, David A. Vise in Washington and Howard Schneider in Cairo and special correspondent Pamela Ferdinand in Boston contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company