EgyptAir inquiry looming for FBI

Criminal probe eyed

cryptic words on tape might be final prayer

Hints of a pilot's suicide

Translators of Arabic assist NTSB review of cockpit recording

November 16, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Government officials said yesterday evening that the National Transportation Safety Board was considering asking the FBI to take over the case of EgyptAir Flight 990, after a review of the plane's cockpit voice recorder.

The officials said they were focusing on a cryptic utterance, possibly a prayer, that they indicated might be the last words of a pilot determined to destroy himself and the airplane.

The plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near Nantucket, Mass., two weeks ago, killing all 217 people on board.

Officials would not characterize the words beyond saying that they might have been a prayer. The crew's conversations, other than uneventful ones with air traffic controllers, were in Arabic, and senior officials of the safety board said that even with the aid of additional interpreters brought in yesterday, they did not understand what was being said on the tape. The problems were ones of language, culture and hearing what people said in a noisy cockpit.

Transportation investigators stressed that they had not yet synchronized the voice tape with the flight data recorder tape, which would record events occurring on the airplane and could put the statements in context. For instance, a prayer being said after the plane began plummeting so fast that passengers were rendered weightless would not be suspicious. So a fuller understanding of the tape might make it clear that the crash was, in fact, an accident.

The safety board has supreme authority over transportation accidents, and guards that role jealously, but the FBI, which usually assists the board, takes over if the two agencies decide that there was evidence of a crime.

The chairman of the safety board, James E. Hall, at a news conference yesterday afternoon, said: "We are concentrating our efforts on determining from the evidence, including the cockpit voice recorder, whether or not this investigation is to remain under the leadership of the NTSB."

Asked to clarify why he was focusing on whether the crash was properly within his agency's jurisdiction, Hall simply reread his statement about leadership of the investigation.

Government officials said that the safety board proposed stepping aside yesterday afternoon, and taking a subordinate role assisting the FBI, but was dissuaded by the FBI from doing so.

The FBI, which had one agent sitting in with safety board officials on Sunday to listen to the tape, sent more yesterday evening, officials said.

The board is often eager to extricate itself from crashes that are not caused by mechanical failures or human error; most recently, it gave the FBI jurisdiction over the derailment of an Amtrak train in October 1995, near Hyder, Ariz., that was determined to have been caused by someone sabotaging the tracks. It has also turned over two aircraft incidents, in which disgruntled airline employees came into the cockpit and attacked the pilots flying the plane.

And board officials say that they have a full agenda of work ahead of them without this crash, including the TWA 800 crash three years ago, which many initially suspected was sabotage. In addition, they would not say how many voices were heard on the tape. The cockpit requires a crew of two, and has two seats where observers, trainees or company employees along for the ride can sit.

The plane, a 10-year-old Boeing 767, was cruising at 33,000 feet about half an hour out of Kennedy International Airport on Oct. 31 when the autopilot disengaged, either by itself or by the action of a pilot. Then the plane flew steadily for a few more seconds, and went into an extremely steep dive. During the dive, someone turned off the engines.

The dive was so steep that people inside were rendered weightless, but after descending about three miles, the plane pitched up again, subjecting everyone inside to 2 1/2 times the normal force of gravity.

Then it turned downward again and apparently broke up.

Hall said yesterday evening, "I am well aware of the many rumors, theories and stories circulating in the last 72 hours -- indeed, in the last two weeks -- about potential causes of this tragedy."

A U.S. intelligence official said last night that the CIA has no evidence indicating terrorist activity in connection with the crash. The official said the CIA has translators listening to the tape, but CIA officials are not certain of the significance of the utterances.

An American pilot with long experience in crash investigations run by the safety board suggested that the board's next steps could include interviews and even cultural study, as opposed to technical analysis.

At the FBI, Joseph Valiquette, a spokesman for the New York office, said: "As far as the FBI is concerned, we're doing the same things today that we've been doing for the past two weeks. But we all agree -- FBI, NTSB and the rest of the parties -- that the tape recordings need to be further analyzed before people can reach certain conclusions."

Yesterday, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh met with Hall to discuss the progress of the case and the possibility that the bureau might take over the inquiry. In part, senior officials are worried over how to pay for what could be a long and costly investigation, if it is necessary to retrieve large sections of the aircraft from the seabed.

Law enforcement officials said the bureau might tap the government's Counterterrorism Fund, a reserve of several million dollars that is managed by the Justice Department. The fund is designed to pay for extraordinary expenses involved in terror cases, but only if the evidence suggests a criminal act.

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