Mystery deepens over jet disaster

Flight 990's black box located, but revelation that 30 Egyptian officers on board fuels speculation
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The Independent Online
THE CAUSE of the crash of EgyptAir 900 remained shrouded in mystery last night despite a report from the United States coast guard that one of its ships had detected a "ping" signal from one of the aircraft's "black-box" data and voice recorders.

Officials continued to focus on some kind of mechanical mishap that was dramatic enough to send the aircraft - which had taken off from JFK for Cairo on Sunday morning - plummeting to the Atlantic south of Nantucket, Massachusetts, taking the lives of all 217 on board. But they had not yet ruled out criminal sabotage, including an act of terrorism, as a possible cause. Among the 62 Egyptians on board, 33 were senior military officials, who had been in the US for training to fly Apache attack helicopters. EgyptAir confirmed that there were 106 Americans on board, more than any other nationality.

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, said: "I think it's better if people draw no conclusions until we know something."

The US coast guard said it had given up all hope of finding survivors. A first substantial 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 three years ago. Officials said that the aircraft's transponder continued to send signals to air-traffic controllers even after it began its dramatic drop, which suggests that it still had electrical power.

The continued flow of electricity from the moment the aircraft started 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 debris and victims intensified yesterday over a large area 60 miles to the south of Nantucket. The aircraft had taken off from JFK at 1.19am on Sunday after an uneventful flight to New York from Los Angeles. Controllers saw it begin its plunge at 1.52am.

The first of the items retrieved from the ocean surface, including one body, were being brought to Quonset Point, a maritime base in Rhode Island. Two escape slides from the aircraft had also been found.

This morning, the hunt for the "black boxes" will begin. In contrast to the TWA disaster, where the immediate explosion meant the boxes yielded nothing, officials hope that the supply of power 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 are expected to land in New York this morning.

A veteran pilot of EgyptAir said last night: "What I feel is that something catastrophic suddenly happened in a matter of seconds and there was no time for [the pilots] to react," he said. "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."

The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jim Hall, said the radar information was being scrutinised. Initial data suggested that the rate of descent slowed a little in the last 90 seconds. At that point, the transponder had failed, but an echo was picked up. The slowdown could indicate that the pilots were having some success in levelling off. or that the aircraft had started to break apart.