Flying low over the sea, the stricken jet tried to turn back and hit the water

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The Independent Online

France was plunged into deep mourning yesterday when a Paris-bound holiday charter plane crashed into the Red Sea killing 148 people, mostly French tourists, including scores of children.

France was plunged into deep mourning yesterday when a Paris-bound holiday charter plane crashed into the Red Sea killing 148 people, mostly French tourists, including scores of children.

The victims were said to include several families from the Paris area, including an entire family of seven.

French air accident experts were flying to Egypt last night to try to discover why the Boeing 737-300, owned by an Egyptian charter company, crashed into deep water minutes after take-off from Sharm el Sheikh airport. A terrorist act had not been completely excluded but French and Egyptian officials said that the initial evidence pointed to an accident. A French frigate was ordered to the area to search for the flight recorders.

Dominique Bussereau, the French deputy transport minister, said the Flash Airlines Boeing 737, carrying tourists from a Christmas and New Year break at hotels on the Red Sea coast, suffered a "problem at take-off". "It tried to turn back and it was when trying to do so that it crashed," he said. Eye-witnesses said the plane was flying low over the water. It was intact as it hit the sea at a shallow angle and broke up on impact.

Egypt's civil aviation minister said that the causes of the crash were "entirely technical" and there was no sign of terrorism. The Egyptian pilot did not send a distress call. French aviation experts said that this might mean the aircraft was disabled by a small explosion on board but it could equally mean the pilot was struggling with the controls and had no time to send a signal. The victims were said to include at least 127 French tourists, eight other holidaymakers resident in France and 13 Egyptian and Moroccan crew members, including a relief crew that was due to take over after a stop in Cairo.

At Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris the first intimation of catastrophe was a flashing light on the arrivals board, illuminating the word retardé (delayed) beside flight number FSH604. Soon after 9am Paris time, when the flight from Sharm el Sheikh was due to touch down, there was a public address announcement at Terminal Three, reserved for charter and cut-price airlines. "Would anyone meeting passengers from flight FSH604 gather under the Aéroports de Paris sign at the back of the building?"

Police and airport officials passed on the terrible news. A young woman burst into tears and ran away. A friend tried to restrain her but then gave up. A woman in her 50s buried her face in her husband's chest. Others stood frozen in shock, until they were helped into a bus that took them to a crisis centre at the Ibis hotel.

The French Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, at the centre to give his condolences to relatives, said: "The entire nation has been wounded by this calamity ... We do not know the precise causes of the crash but we know its cruelty. It is an overwhelming, revolting tragedy, which has engulfed people who were simple seeking a little rest."

Many of the passengers on board the Flash Airlines Boeing 737 were couples or young families who had booked with the FRAM tour company. The head of medical services at Charles de Gaulle airport, Dr Michel Clerel, said: "The relatives are in shock. You have to imagine they were waiting for family members to come back from a holiday, then it was brutally announced to them that they had died."

Asked whether there were many children on board he said: "Yes, many. They were spending their holidays with their families."

The French Justice Ministry ordered a judicial investigation for "manslaughter" ­ the usual procedure in France when accidental death is suspected.

French officials said the investigation was a "formality" to provide a legal basis for French participation in the accident investigation. The inquiry was entrusted to the office of the public prosecutor in Bobigny, Jean-Paul Simonnot, whose jurisdiction includes Charles de Gaulle. An international investigation warrant was issued by an examining magistrate yesterday afternoon, allowing French air accident experts to travel to Egypt last night and today.

He said: "At present, there is no reason to exclude the possibility of an accident ... The aircraft plunged into the sea just after take-off. The wreckage is at the bottom of the sea.

"Recovery of bodies will be very difficult."