Nantucket air disaster: In this serene town, disbelief as the sea becomes a graveyard once again for so many travellers

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The Independent Online
AT THE Rose and Crown pub in Nantucket Town the mood was subdued as a few patrons tucked into their bar lunches and pints of beer yesterday. Many had come in expecting a quiet break, watching some Sunday American football. Instead they found that the several televisions dotted around the bar were tuned to the CNN news channel.

It had happened again. For all of America the emotion was the same: disbelief that once more a plane had vanished from radar screens during the night and disappeared into the ocean with hopes barely flickering that any people on board could possibly be found alive.

In the Rose and Crown, the disbelief was as profound as anywhere. The bar was festooned yesterday for the Hallowe'en celebrations of last night. No expense or hassle had been spared in the effort to create an atmosphere of ghouls and terror. Witches and ghosts were hanging from the rafters; a huge bat, drawn in lurid shades of black, green and orange, decorated the main floor in front of the bar.

Suddenly, however, all of Nantucket, its picturesque cobbled streets filled with the trappings of trick or treating - pumpkins, straw bales, some of the folk even dressed in witch costumes - had lost all appetite for make-believe horror. They had the real thing to contend with, just 60 miles off their southern shore where the Boeing 767 of EgyptAir had plummeted in the early hours of the morning.

And for these islands, to the south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, aviation disasters are suddenly arriving too frequently. Just three months ago, neighbouring Martha's Vineyard suffered its own unexpected trauma when the small Saratoga Piper aircraft carrying John F Kennedy Jnr, his wife and her sister, ploughed into the Atlantic just as it was making a night- time approach to its tiny airport.

"It's just not reasonably possible," remarked Marie Puffer, who was visiting Nantucket from her Boston home for the weekend. "It seems they have barely got to the bottom of the JFK crash and now this happens. I don't know how it could happen so quickly after that crash and almost in the same place."

Legend gives special attention to the Bermuda Triangle, the area of ocean around those islands where ships and planes have vanished without explanation. Now the corridor stretching north-east from the airports of New York surely deserves a similar, even more, gruesome designation. In the second half of this decade, it has become the graveyard for hundreds of air passengers.

The JFK crash rocked the normally serene island of Martha's Vineyard - the favourite holiday destination of America's well-heeled as well as the "First Family" - not because of the number of people who perished, but because of who they were.

For a week at the end of July, the eyes of the world were glued to it as the hunt began first for survivors, then for wreckage and, finally, for reasons for that crash.

In September 1998, a MD-11 wide-body Swissair jet spiralled into the Canadian waters off Halifax, Nova Scotia, in an accident that killed 229, all those who had been on board. When it came down, again at night, the pilots had been trying to negotiate an emergency landing in Halifax. Investigators came to suspect that a fire had erupted on board, perhaps caused by wiring to newly installed in-seat entertainment systems.

Two years earlier, it was TWA 800 that shocked the world, when a 747 of that airline exploded over the waters of Long Island Sound, taking 230 lives as it nosedived into the waters. That calamity was eventually blamed on a detonation in the ageing aircraft's fuel tanks. The people on board the TWA plane were killed just minutes after the jet had climbed out of JFK airport in New York at the start of a transatlantic journey to Europe. Similarly, the EgyptAir 990 had departed from JFK to trace roughly the same eastward route, bound for Cairo. But for the passengers and crew on this latest tragic flight, disaster took a little longer coming.

Federal aviation officials said that EgyptAir 990 took off at about 1.20am in tricky conditions, with that area of Long Island shrouded in a heavy and muggy autumn fog. The plane was two hours and 20 minutes late in departing, apparently because it had arrived similarly behind schedule from the starting point of its journey, Los Angeles. At first, no problems were apparent, at least not to controllers on the ground.

After reaching Nantucket, the aircraft would normally have turned on a more northerly heading towards the coast of maritime Canada for the shorter curve across the northern Atlantic. But then, just 30 minutes after the plane took off, its image on the controllers' radar screens disappeared.

Almost at once, what was described as a "massive and immediate" search and rescue operation was launched. In full swing by daybreak yesterday, the operation under way was familiar to everyone in this part of America. Some of the ships dispatched to the area are well known from the rescue missions for the JFK and TWA disasters. Most familar is the USS Grapple, the heavy-lifting ship that hauled sections of TWA 800 to the surface in July 1996 and helped to locate JFK's Piper.

The waters off Nantucket are much deeper than in Long Island Sound, and hopes of finding large pieces of the EgyptAir plane were considered slim. Parts of it, however, were found floating in the waves off Nantucket shortly after dawn yesterday morning. Several bodies were also discovered.

Wailing relatives gathered at Cairo airport yesterday, as they realised that something terribly wrong had happened to Flight 990. Hours after the flight was to have landed at the Egyptian capital, airport officials set up a makeshift information centre in a restaurant. A man sobbed out: "My cousin," and fainted. A distressed mother moaned her son's name: "Wahid, Wahid."

A man in his 60s found a familiar name on the list, collapsed into a chair as he cried out: "My son, my son," and begged reporters to leave him alone. Every few minutes he stood up, looked out of the window at the planes and cried out: "Ahmed, Ahmed."

In the Rose and Crown, first pictures of the recovery of the plane's pieces - including a section that was apparently part of the tail - flickered on to the screen. Everyone stared. Some pointed out that the first boat on the scene yesterday morning, the Coast Guard Cutter, Monomoy, had, just hours before, been moored at the dock in Nantucket Town, just yards from the pub.

"I didn't hear about it until about eleven, and I came straight here," said Joe Manning, a roofer who hails from Ireland. "It's shocking. I flew back from Ireland on exactly the same kind of plane just two weeks ago. You see something like this and it makes you think that every time you go up in one of those things you are taking your life in your hands."

Nantucket knows tragedy, but more from its heritage in the early and mid-19th century as the world's busiest centre for whaling. Herman Melville's Moby Dick was about a whaling ship's encounter with a whale of unheard- of power that had set off from Nantucket. It was based on a true story.