Search for clues begins in EgyptAir disaster
129 Americans among 217 people feared dead
November 1, 1999
NANTUCKET, Massachusetts (CNN) -- As friends and family members of those on board EgyptAir Flight 990 mourn their loved ones, a massive investigation has begun into what caused the Boeing 767 to take a sudden, steep plunge and crash into the Atlantic Ocean early Sunday.
Coast Guard ships were expected to comb the ocean about 60 miles (96 kilometers) southeast of the island of Nantucket through the night, continuing to search on the remote possibility that any of the 217 people on board the New York-to-Cairo flight could have survived.
The search is expected to intensify once daylight returns. A command center for the recovery effort and investigation is being set up in Quonset Point, Rhode Island, and arrangements were being made to bring family members of the victims -- arriving both from Egypt and from around the United States -- to Providence.
While all of those on board the jet are feared dead, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard Larrabee was still terming his agency's efforts as a "search and rescue mission."
U.S. officials say there is no evidence that foul play might have been involved in the crash. But FBI agents descended on John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, from where the plane took off about 30 minutes before it disappeared from radar.
Everyone at the airport who had any contact with the plane was being questioned, and similar interviews were taking place in Los Angeles, where the flight originated Saturday evening. FBI officials said such interviews were standard procedure in the wake of an airline crash.
Officials with the Port Authority, which runs New York's airports, said all the passenger luggage on the flight had been X-rayed, although they were unsure whether that precaution had been taken with non-passenger cargo.
EgyptAir officials said there were 199 passengers and 15 crew members on board, as well as three EgyptAir staff members who were traveling but not on duty.
Among the passengers were 62 Egyptians, two Sudanese, three Syrians and one Chilean, EgyptAir officials said. Egypt's ambassador to the United Nations, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, told CNN that 129 of the passengers were from the United States.
The nationality of the remaining two passengers remains unknown, although EgyptAir officials have indicated that some Canadians were on board.
New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has seen the passenger list, says "it appears to me that this covers a large, large cross-section of America."
"There are people from California and people from the Midwest and people from Vermont and ... Maryland, so (notifying relatives will be) a very, very complex task," he said.
During Sunday's search, at least one body was recovered, as well as aircraft seats, a wheel, lifejackets and personal effects, including passports, Larrabee said. Two partially-inflated life rafts, which had no signs of burn marks, were found, but he said, "I don't know that you can read anything into that."
The search is concentrated on a 36-square-mile patch of ocean surrounding the debris field, Larrabee said. The ocean in the area, which is in international waters, is between 200 and 250 feet (60 to 75 meters) deep, Larrabee said.
The U.S. Navy has agreed to dispatch the USS Grapple to assist in the search. The Grapple, which has special equipment to haul debris from under the ocean, was being sent from its home port of Norfolk, Virginia, on Sunday evening.
EgyptAir Flight 990 had originated in Los Angeles on Saturday evening. After stopping at Kennedy airport to take on additional passengers, it departed at 1:19 a.m. EST Sunday -- about three hours later than scheduled -- for the nearly 12-hour flight to Cairo.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall said preliminary radar recordings show that the plane had reached its cruising altitude of 33,000 feet (9,900 meters) when the crew made a routine call to air traffic controllers about 1:47 a.m.
About three minutes later, radar data showed the plane began a sudden plunge, dropping to an altitude of 19,100 feet (5,730 meters) in just 36 seconds. Hall stressed that those radar recordings are preliminary and come from a single radar site.
The plane disappeared from radar detection entirely about 90 seconds later, without ever issuing a distress call.
After the plane vanished from radar, the FAA notified the Coast Guard of the disappearance about 2:15 a.m. Search planes and ships were immediately dispatched, and the first debris was spotted at 6:30 a.m. "in the general vicinity of the last known point of contact," Larrabee said.
In Cairo, New York and Los Angeles, airline officials set up crisis centers for family members of victims to gather, grieve and receive information and counseling.
"Our main concern now is to do our best to help the families of the victims, here in Egypt and the United States. And we will take all the necessary measures," said EgyptAir's chairman, Mohammed Fahim Rayan.
Giuliani, who met with some of the families at a New York hotel Sunday, described them as "very upset" and "frustrated."
"This is an enormously difficult thing to go through," he said.
EgyptAir Flight 990 is the third trans-Atlantic flight to take off from Kennedy airport and crash since 1996. The others were TWA Flight 800, which broke apart and crashed off Long Island in 1996, and SwissAir Flight 111, which crashed while trying to make an emergency landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1998.
EgyptAir was planning to bring family members of victims from Egypt to New York and on to Providence, perhaps by Tuesday.
Ironically, Edward McLaughlin, a consultant who works with EgyptAir on human resource issues, including dealing with crashes, was on Flight 990. He got off the jetliner in New York, which is where he lives and works.
At midday Sunday, McLaughlin spoke at a news conference called by the Port Authority and said he was working with families of the passengers on the flight on behalf of EgyptAir. He did not reveal his connection to the flight.
Under international aviation conventions, it is up to the country where an airplane is registered to investigate crashes in international waters. In this case, that country is Egypt, but the Egyptian government has requested that the NTSB take the lead in investigating the accident.
Gheit said the Egyptians made that request because of the close proximity of the crash to the United States. But he said Egyptian investigators would be dispatched to assist with the investigation.
U.S. President Bill Clinton Called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Sunday to offer condolences and discuss plans for the probe.
Hall said the NTSB "will devote all the necessary resources to determine what caused this aircraft to crash."
"We are beginning what may be a long investigation, and we are prepared to do what it takes to find the answers to the questions we are seeking," he said.
CNN has learned that on September 24, the Federal Aviation Administration sent a circular to government agencies warning of a bomb threat against flights departing from Los Angeles or New York. But the warning was later rescinded because the threat came from a prison inmate and was not considered credible.
EgyptAir identified the main pilot as Hatem Roushdi, who had more than 10,000 hours of flight experience. Colleagues described him as a "very experienced pilot."
The airline said he had been in contact with his son, also an EgyptAir pilot, just hours before leaving.
Rayan said there were three captains and two co-pilots on the plane, an unusually large number because of the length of the trip.
EgyptAir has suffered four fatal crashes since 1971, the most recent in June 1986. In the worst of those crashes, an EgyptAir 707 crashed into a textile mill during an approach to the Bangkok, Thailand, airport on Christmas Day, 1976, killing 43 passengers, nine crew members and 20 people on the ground.
The Boeing 767 has been used by commercial airlines since 1982 and 700 had been delivered to the airlines as of this past April. EgyptAir put the doomed jetliner into service in 1989.
Prior to Sunday, at least three 767s been involved in serious crashes, including a Lauda 767 that went down in Thailand in May 1991 after its thrust reversers were accidentally deployed in flight. All 223 aboard were killed in that crash.
The only other with fatalities was an Ethiopian Airline flight that crashed trying to land during a hijacking in November 1996, killing 127 people.
Hijacking suspect charged; had tried to enter Germany before
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