Airbus crash was just an accident, say investigators

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Information recovered from the cockpit voice recorder of American Airlines flight 587, which crashed shortly after take-off from JFK airport in New York on Monday, indicates that the crash was an accident and not an act of sabotage, investigators said.

Despite initial fears that the airliner had been brought down by terrorists to crash into a densely populated New York suburb, investigators have all but ruled out that suggestion. A measure of the state of anxiety gripping the city after the attacks of 11 September is the sense of relief felt by many people that this was "just an ordinary air crash".

Inquiries into the crash are still at an early stage and investigators will not rule out altogether the possibility of sabotage. But George Black, spokesman for the US National Transportation Safety Board – which is leading the inquiry – said initial investigations revealed no evidence that the crash was caused by anything other than mechanical failure.

Mr Black said: "The cockpit voice recorder is the biggest information that we have and a quick listen to that ... showed nothing that would imply any sort of unusual activity in the cockpit other than the accident sequence.

"There was nothing on the tape that would lead us to believe that it was anything other than an aviation accident."

A total of 269 people are believed to have died when the Airbus A-300 bound for the Dominican Republic crashed into the Belle Harbor neighbourhood in the New York borough of Queens. The accident happened at 9.14am (2.14pm GMT), only three minutes after take-off. Witnesses said the plane split apart and hit the ground nose first. Of those who died, 251 were passengers and nine were crew. Nine people from the local community are presumed dead.

First Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Dunne said 265 bodies had been recovered, and police were asking family members for DNA samples to help with identification.

About a dozen houses were damaged or destroyed by the crashed plane.

Mr Black said the distribution of the wreckage over a wide area, including parts of the plane's tail that fell into Jamaica Bay, indicated the plane suffered a mechanical failure in the brief time it was in the air. A number of witnesses reported seeing flames coming from one of the aircraft's two engines. At least one of the engines sheared off and fell to the ground.

"The distribution of the wreckage is unusual. It indicates pieces were coming off the airplane very shortly after take-off," Mr Black said. "To have pieces in the bay and the two engines not located with the fuselage indicates something went seriously wrong very quickly in the flight."

Investigators will be also scrutinising the 9,480lb General Electric CF6-80C2 engine that came to rest in a Texaco fuel station, a few feet from the petrol pumps.

There were reports yesterday that the Airbus's engines have to be overhauled after every 10,000 hours they operate. The two engines on the A-300 that crashed had operated for 9,788 and 694 hours. Which of the two fell off is not known. Officials said the maintenance records of the aircraft would be scrutinised.

A report in The Washington Post said investigative sources claimed that both, and not just one, of the airliner's engines had sheared off, as had its vertical tail section. The Post said that while some airliners had suffered the sudden separation of one engine while in flight, to lose both engines on a twin-engine was extraordinary – raising the possibility of either sabotage or a serious maintenance failure.

Another report said investigators had found the remains of birds inside the engine debris, suggesting that the Airbus flew into a flock of birds that somehow caused the crash.

Mr Black said the flight data recorder, which has yet to be found, would provide vital information and fill in many of the gaps in the investigation.

New York's Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, said efforts were being made to return the bodies of victims to their families. "We hope we will be able to restore loved ones to their families as soon as possible," he said. Help was being provided for relatives to obtain visas to travel from the Dominican Republic, he said, and counselling was being made available.

American Airlines issued a partial passenger list yesterday indicating that up to 90 per cent of those on board were from the Dominican Republic, and most of the others were American.