Investigators turn to recovery phase in EgyptAir crash
Navy salvage ships head to crash site
November 1, 1999
NEWPORT, Rhode Island (CNN) -- After expressing deep regret for being unable to find any survivors, officials announced Monday they had entered the "next stage of the investigation" -- one of search and recovery -- in connection with the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990.
"It will be our job to safely and compassionately recover human remains and wreckage," said Capt. Russell Webster of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Webster said six Coast Guard cutters spent the day intensively involved in search and recovery efforts on the ocean surface off the coast of Massachusetts. He said U.S. Navy ships were en route with equipment to search underwater and on the ocean floor.
There were 217 people aboard the Boeing 767-300ER.
'Significant piece' of wreckage found
Investigators don't know what caused the Cairo-bound plane to plummet into the Atlantic Ocean early Sunday less than an hour after leaving New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. Its descent from an altitude of 33,000 feet took just two minutes.
The Coast Guard had not found anything that would explain why the airliner plunged from the skies about 50 miles south of Nantucket Island, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard Larrabee told reporters Monday at the U.S. naval base in Newport, Rhode Island, where the search for wreckage and bodies is being coordinated.
But searchers did find a "significant piece" of the aircraft while scouring a 9,000-square-mile area over a 35-hour period, Larrabee said.
He did not identify what part of the aircraft it was, but said it was floating and large enough to require a crane for it to be lifted out of the water by the Coast Guard cutter Juniper.
Only one body has so far been found -- but searchers were finding "evidence of further human remains," Larrabee said.
"The average life expectancy in water temperatures of 58 degrees is five to six hours," Larrabee said. "We have far exceeded that."
Among the other debris found so far, he said, are smaller portions of the aircraft, seats and cushions, clothing and paperwork.
Human remains and "substantial debris," such as evacuation slides and life preservers, were brought to the Quonset Point Naval Base aboard the Coast Guard cutter Monomoy.
Although the overall search area is much wider, the effort was concentrated in an area of about 40 square miles where the water is up to 270 feet deep.
Flight recorder recovery could take days
Larrabee also said searchers located a signal, most likely from one of the so-called black boxes on the jetliner. Officials said the signal was coming from the splash point -- the area when the plane is believed to have hit the water.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall told CNN recovering the devices -- the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder -- would be crucial in determining what happened.
But Hall said it would be up to 48 hours before navy ships with the necessary equipment will be in position to attempt to locate the source of the 'ping' and to attempt to recover it.
"Remember that we are dealing with water 250 feet deep, and recovering and locating small objects like recorders is a daunting effort," he said.
The NTSB assumed control of the investigation at the request of the Egyptian government, which normally would have taken the lead since the plane went down in international waters.
Although the search weather was good Monday, Larrabee said conditions were expected to worsen.
"It's important for us (Monday) to search that area thoroughly to recover all of the debris we possibly can because the weather's going to change (Tuesday). We expect a front through here with some adverse weather conditions," he told CNN.
Deep sea divers, robots on the way
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel, the USS Whiting, will head to the crash site to perform side-scan sonar operations to help locate the wreckage in the chilly waters, which are twice as deep as the waters where TWA Flight 800 went down in 1996. The Whiting is expected to begin operations Tuesday morning.
A Navy salvage ship, the USS Grapple, which participated in the wreckage retrieval of TWA Flight 800 in 1996 and Swissair Flight 111 last year, was expected to arrive in the area Tuesday.
The ship has a "fly-away, mixed-gas system" that allows Navy divers to perform deep water dives and the ship will stop in Newport to pick up a deep drone robot called a ROV to help expedite the salvage process.
"Also en route is the USNS Mohawk, which is another salvage vessel," announced U.S Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Pauls, who is the dive team leader for the crash site. "She currently has on board a pinger locator system, she has on an additional side-scan sonar and she has on a smaller ROV which she'll be using to support the dive ops and the sounding jobs."
The 10-year-old plane slammed into the ocean 33 minutes after leaving New York for Cairo with dozens of American tourists on board.
None of the recovered wreckage had burn marks, which could have indicated a fire or explosion on board, the Coast Guard said. And with no distress call from the pilots and a fall of nearly 300 feet per second, investigators had few clues.
The FBI and other intelligence agencies are investigating the possibility of sabotage, but a check of the flight's passenger list shows "no one suspicious," a senior U.S. counterterrorism official told CNN Monday.
While it's possible a terrorist could have been using an alias, U.S. officials say at this point there are no signs of terrorist activity in connection with the crash.
And the FBI special agent in charge of the investigation said at a briefing Monday afternoon that he would "strongly emphasize that at this particular point in time, there is no indication of criminal activity."
The FBI deployed 600 agents to work on the case, sources told CNN -- about 200 in the New York-Newark area, 200 in Los Angeles, and 200 in the Boston region. The sources said the FBI was moving aggressively to talk to as many potential witnesses as possible.
About half the plane's passengers were Americans, including a group of 54 bound for a two-week trip to Egypt and the Nile. Alan Lewis, chief executive of the Boston travel agency Grand Circle Corp., said most of the group members were from Colorado, Arizona and the Pacific Northwest.
The plane started its flight in Los Angeles and stopped at New York's Kennedy airport. It took off again at 1:19 a.m. EST Sunday and went down at 1:52 a.m., some 60 miles south of Nantucket Island.
The jet began its steep descent at 1:50 a.m. while flying at 33,000 feet. Hall said the plane dropped about 14,000 feet -- to an altitude of 19,100 feet -- over the next 36 seconds. The last radar signal was at 1:52 a.m.
Yet, during that catastrophic plummet, the jetliner apparently possessed enough electrical power to broadcast its fast-diminishing altitude from its transponder, indicating to some aviation experts that the jet did not immediately break up, even if its distress was instant.
If electricity was still functioning at that point, it increases the likelihood that the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorders -- if found -- will contain information that will help investigators.
The weather at Nantucket at the time was clear with nine miles of visibility and light winds, the National Weather Service said.
Egyptian military officers on board
Among the passengers were about 30 Egyptian military officers, mostly pilots who had been training in the United States, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Monday.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak offered condolences Monday to the families of the doomed plane's passengers and crew.
"When I heard about it, I was shocked. It was a big tragedy for us," he said in Cairo. "But this is our fate. It could happen anywhere in the world."
He declined to speculate on the cause of the crash.
Search for clues begins in EgyptAir disaster
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