Mystery deepens over jet disaster

Flight 990's black box located, but presence of 33 Egyptian officers on board fuels speculation
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THE MYSTERY of EgyptAir flight 990 was deepening last night as US officials indicated the inquiry into why the plane crashed would be a long and tortuous affair.

A signal from one of the aircraft's "black-box" data and voice recorders has been detected but retrieving it and other wreckage from the seabed, 250ft down, will be a "daunting" task, according to Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. The depth of the ocean off Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where the plane crashed is twice that of the waters where TWA flight 800 came to grief three years ago.

Speculation about some kind of calamitous mechanical mishap heightened with the news that the Boeing 767 was built within days of an identical 767 that crashed in Thailand eight years ago killing all those on board. Both planes were completed just days before workers at the Boeing plant in Washington state went on strike claiming they had to work excessive amounts of overtime.

In a further twist it emerged that passengers on board the flight - which had taken off from JFK for Cairo on Sunday morning - included a handful of "senior-level" officers, at least one of which was a brigadier general, probably in the US to meet defence contractors. The total number of Egyptian military officers on the flight was said to be 33, mostly pilots visiting the US for training, including a number who were taking part in a helicopter programme. Crash investigators said they had not yet ruled out criminal sabotage, including an act of terrorism.

US officials strained to play down all terrorist-related scenarios and an American embassy spokesman in Cairo, David Ballard, said: "Hundreds of Egyptian military officers go to the United States every year for various kinds of training."

President Bill Clinton, attending a Middle East peace conference in Oslo yesterday, was among those resisting reaching conclusions about terrorism. "I think it's better if people draw no conclusions until we know something," he said. EgyptAir confirmed that 106 Americans were among the 217 who died in the crash, more than any other nationality.

The US Coast Guard said it had given up all hope of finding survivors, turning its search and rescue mission into one of search and recovery. A first big portion of the aircraft was being lifted from the ocean by a salvage ship last night.

Evidence from radar tapes pointed away from any initial catastrophic explosion of the kind that knocked TWA 800 from the sky. Officials said that the aircraft's transponder continued to send signals to air traffic controllers even after it began its startling drop, which suggests that it still had electrical power.

The continued flow of electricity from the moment the aircraft began its plunge at 33,000 feet until it had reached 19,000 feet - just 36 seconds later - raises the possibility not only that the Boeing was intact during that time but also that the crew and passengers may have been alive during those terrifying moments - and conscious.

With weather forecasters predicting poor conditions from tonight, the search for wreckage and victims was extended yesterday over an area 60 miles to the south of Nantucket. The first of the items retrieved from the ocean surface, including one body, were being taken to Quonset Point, a maritime base in Rhode Island. A hangar was being prepared to serve as a makeshift morgue. Coast Guard officers said two escape slides from the aircraft had also been found.

This morning, efforts to retrieve the "black boxes" will begin. In contrast to the TWA disaster, where the immediate explosion meant the boxes yielded nothing, officials hope the supply of power even during the fall will mean they have recorded instrument activity and the pilots' voices.

A first group of families of the victims were flown by EgyptAir to Providence last night to be closer to the scene of the crash. More relatives are expected to land in New York this morning.

A veteran pilot of EgyptAir said: "I feel that something catastrophic happened in a matter of seconds and there was no time for [the pilots] to react. It must be that part of the plane separated from the rest, such as the tail or a wing, or it was hit by an internal bomb or an external rocket."