217 dead as jet plunges into sea

US left baffled by mystery of third major aircraft crash off north- east coast in three years
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A BOEING 767 plunged vertically into the Atlantic south of the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts yesterday, killing all 217 people on board. The aeroplane, EgyptAir flight 990, had taken off from Kennedy airport, New York, less than an hour earlier, bound for Cairo.

This was the third disaster involving a big passenger jet in the area in as many years, and the second to befall a Boeing airliner. In all three crashes, the planes lost power too quickly to make an emergency landing.

According to the American National Transport and Safety Board, the plane was tracked on radar 31 minutes after take-off, flying completely normally at 33,000 feet. Just 36 seconds later, the radar reading had it at 19,100 feet, a catastrophic fall equivalent to 23,200 feet per minute. The last radio communication with the plane was 28 minutes into the flight, at least three minutes before it lost altitude.

Investigators in New York were quick to dampen speculation that a bomb was a likely cause. "We have no threats, we have no one claiming responsibility," said Jim Davis, an FBI spokesman. But authorities disclosed there was a month-old threat that a bomb would "soon" be used on a flight departing from Los Angeles or New York. There was also a report that one passenger booked through to Cairo had left the aircraft at John F Kennedy airport. He was found to be an employee of the airline who had attended a seminar in Los Angeles.

There were 199 passengers and 18 crew on the plane, including 62 Egyptians and up to 131 Americans. Grand Circle Travel, an agent in Boston, had 54 clients, all over the age of 50, on the plane. They had booked a 14-day trip touring Egypt and the Nile and "all indications" were they were on board.

The aircraft was on the final leg of a round-trip journey from Cairo to Los Angeles. The crew included four pilots, all of whom had many years' experience.

Wreckage, including seat cushions and pieces of liferafts, were sighted by a US merchant marine ship about 60 miles south of Nantucket within hours of the plane going missing. The first bodies were recovered soon afterwards.

The route taken by the plane was similar to that of TWA 800, the jumbo jet that crashed off Long Island in 1996, and Swissair 111, the McDonnell Douglas plane that crashed last year while trying to make an emergency landing at Halifax, Canada. That flight path, however, is used by hundreds of passenger planes flying from New York across the Atlantic each day.

After more fanciful explanations - such as the coincidence of Hallowe'en or computer confusion generated by the change from summer to winter time - were dismissed, attention focused on the possibility of catastrophic mechanical failure or terrorism. The weather at the time was good.

The Associated Press reported the existence of an apparent terrorist threat, contained in a Federal Aviation Administration circular on 24 September. It said several US agencies had received a warning in August that a bomb or explosive device would soon be used on a flight departing from either Los Angeles airport or JFK airport, New York.

The circular said the informant identified himself as Luciano Porcari - the name used by a man who hijacked an Iberia Boeing 727 during an internal Spanish flight in 1977 - and noted that the device could not be detected by airport metal detectors. EgyptAir said that it had no information about any threat to its planes.

But an EgyptAir plane flying between Istanbul and Cairo was hijacked just two weeks before yesterday's crash. The plane landed safely in Hamburg, where the hijacker, who was armed with a knife and reported to be mentally disturbed, surrendered.

The plane that went down yesterday had logged 33,000 flight hours - a normal record - since it was acquired by the airline in 1989, and had spent barely an hour on the tarmac at Kennedy airport, after a departure from Los Angeles that was delayed by a tyre-change.

Wailing relatives gathered yesterday at Cairo airport, screaming their grief as the news sank in.

Long criticised as bureaucratic, and inefficient, EgyptAir's 67-year history is far from unblemished.

In 1996, one of its planes skidded on to a road and rammed a taxi in Istanbul. A year earlier, an Airbus A300B4 aborted take-off in Cairo and evacuated passengers after a fire.