Black box reveals pilot's desperate bid to control jet

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The cockpit voice recorder recovered from American Airlines flight 587, which crashed shortly after take-off from JFK airport in New York on Monday, reveals the pilots desperately struggling to control the aircraft before it plunged into a residential neighbourhood.

Investigators said the co-pilot – named last night as First Officer Sten Molin – could be heard calling for maximum power, speaking over marked rattling noises, two minutes after the Airbus A-300 took off. Less than 30 seconds later, the recording ended – just before the aircraft, which had been bound for the Dominican Republic, crashed nose-first into the Belle Harbor community in Queens at 9.17am (2.17pm GMT). Witnesses said it split apart.

A total of 269 people are believed to have died – 251 passengers, nine crew and nine people from the local community. The pilot was named last night as Captain Edward States.

The recording adds to the conviction among experts that the airliner was not brought down by terrorists but by mechanical failure. A measure of the state of anxiety gripping New York after the attacks of 11 September is the sense of relief felt by many that this was "just an ordinary air crash".

Inquiries are still at an early stage and investigators have not completely ruled out the possibility of sabotage. But George Black, a spokesman for the US National Transportation Safety Board – which is leading the inquiry – said there was "nothing on the tape that would lead us to believe that it was anything other than an aviation accident".

He said the tape reveals that the take-off initially went according to plan. After 107 seconds a rattling was audible, with a second "airframe rattling noise" 14 seconds later. Then, only 23 seconds after that – "after several comments suggesting loss of control" – the recording came to an end. Mr Black said examination of the Airbus's engines had not revealed any obvious faults that may have caused it to crash. He added: "Initial inspection shows no evidence of any sort of internal failure of engines. They all appear to be in one piece."

Officials said the recording also suggested that the Airbus was struck by air turbulence created by a Boeing 747 that had taken off before it. The extent to which this could have destabilised the aircraft was unclear last night, though experts said it could have been crucial.

About a dozen houses were damaged or destroyed as the aircraft came down and started fires in at least four locations.

Mr Black said the distribution of the wreckage over a wide area, including parts of the aircraft's tail that fell into Jamaica Bay, indicated it suffered a mechanical failure while it was in the air. A number of witnesses reported seeing flames coming from one of the two engines.

"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."

Investigators will also be 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.

Airbus engines have to be overhauled after every 10,000 hours of operation. It was reported yesterday that the two engines on the airlinerhad gone 9,788 and 694 hours since their last full service. Officials said the aircraft's maintenance records would be scrutinised. They have also recovered the inflight data recorder.

A report in The Washington Post said the vertical tail section had also split off. The Post said that losing both engines on a twin-engine aircraft 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.

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.

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.

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