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.
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.
Any sense of accomplishment over locating the black boxes was tempered by knowing natural elements would dictate the investigation's pace. Rainstorms and 50-mph gusts raised 10-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 about 250 feet to the ocean floor. He said he expected the vehicle to arrive late tomorrow.
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.
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 Boeing 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. The first group of investigators from Egypt arrived in Newport yesterday afternoon.
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. But just as that tantalizing tidbit seemed to fade, another surfaced: James Hall, chairman of the safety board, said last night 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, so the potential value of those reports could not be determined. Many people witnessed the in-air explosion and crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996, which occurred close to sunset and a few miles from the southeastern shores of Long Island. EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed in the middle of the night, 50 miles from Nantucket.