Navy says airliner's black boxes located

Storm disrupts probe of Boeing 767 crash

no intact bodies expected

November 03, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Navy searchers said yesterday that they had definitively determined the location of the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder from EgyptAir Flight 990.

The discovery is essential in learning why the Boeing 767 plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean off New England early Sunday, killing all 217 people aboard.

Investigators provided further details last night about the aircraft's final moments. Once something went wrong, they said, the twin-engine jet began a tortured and ever-faster descent that exceeded 660 mph. Radar sweeps tracking the aircraft's plunge from Nantucket Island show that in the last 37 seconds of its flight, the plane twisted away from its assigned northeast heading in a long, right-hand turn.

Investigators said they hoped to integrate data from two other radar centers -- on Long Island, N.Y., and in New Hampshire -- to evaluate that eerie detail.

Thrust reverser disabled

Investigators also said that interviews with the crews that had flown the jet to the United States from Cairo had determined that the plane had experienced one recent problem: Questions about a thrust reverser -- which redirects exhaust to slow a plane at takeoff or landing -- had caused the airline to disable it. But they emphasized that there was no way as yet to determine the significance of that problem.

Rainstorms and 50-mph gusts raised 20-foot waves at the crash scene, about 50 miles south of Nantucket Island, delaying the search and recovery mission. The Navy ship Mohawk, which detected the signals emanating from the two black boxes, was forced to return to shore yesterday afternoon.

Navy Capt. James Graham acknowledged yesterday that the storm would hamper building of a sonar-aided grid of the debris field. But he said the weather should not delay attempts to retrieve the black boxes with a remote-operated vehicle that would be lowered to the ocean floor. He said he expected the vehicle to arrive late tomorrow.

The cockpit voice recorder would include a tape of the last 30 minutes of conversations by the pilots. But the flight data recorder may provide the most valuable information about the plane's final minutes.

The s flight data recorder contains most of the airplane's technical data, including its speed, direction and position of parts.

The harsh weather signaled added pressures: drops in water temperature as the New England fall deepens, shifts in sands that might cover aircraft debris, and the effect that deep-sea life will have on human remains.

Stunned relatives

The anger and sorrow of victims' relatives also pressured officials.

Yesterday at the Doubletree Islander Hotel in Newport, R.I., officials from the National Transportation Safety Board, which is heading the crash investigation, told gathered relatives that only pieces of human remains had been found and advised them not to expect the recovery of intact bodies. The grim advice prompted tears and stunned silence; one relative, Red Cross officials said, had to be taken away by ambulance.

The sensitivity of the subject was palpable at a news conference held by investigators in Newport yesterday afternoon. Graham said that recovery of remains, which had continued throughout the day, would be done "with dignity and respect."

Investigators were seeking to answer a basic but complex question: Why did EgyptAir Flight 990, a 10-year-old airplane with no prior problems, suddenly drop from a clear night sky and fall 33,000 feet into the Atlantic, leaving only Teddy bears, shoes and debris to bob in the fuel-slicked water?

The 767 took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York at 1: 19 a.m. for a routine 11-hour flight to Cairo. Radar tracks indicate that 31 minutes later, the twin-engine jet began its two-minute plunge without reports of problems from its crew.

Now, hundreds of federal investigators, as well as the crews of Navy and Coast Guard vessels, are working to determine the tragedy's cause. Officials warn that no evidence of foul play exists; nevertheless, until a definitive cause is determined, they said they must investigate the possibilities of terrorism and other crime.

Officials for the safety board said they planned to send U.S. investigators to Cairo to look at the maintenance records of the plane or to have those records sent to the United States.

There was no elaboration on reports that an EgyptAir 990 crew member had complained that a briefcase had been tampered with in Los Angeles, where the flight had originated Saturday evening.

Another tantalizing tidbit surfaced last night: James Hall, chairman of the safety board, said that two people on Nantucket had told investigators that they witnessed the final plunge of the jet.

Investigators deflected further questions about the witnesses' claims.

Investigators indicated last night that they will most likely examine any role that the aircraft's thrust reversers might have played in the disaster. The accidental deployment of a thrust reverser in mid-flight led to the crash of another Boeing 767, operated by Lauda Air, near Bangkok, Thailand, in May 1991; the 233 people on board were killed.

Meanwhile, federal investigators pulled back yesterday from their reports Monday that the Coast Guard cutter Juniper had recovered a "piece of the aircraft structure" so large that a crane was needed to hoist it aboard.

Coast Guard Capt. Russ Webster clarified the discovery yesterday, saying that the debris was a luggage container. The container sank before the crew could salvage it.

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