Charter plane crash kills 148

All on Egyptian liner die as it plunges into Red Sea

Officials rule out terrorism

Most were French tourists going home after holiday

January 04, 2004|By Megan K. Stack, Sebastian Rotella and Jailan Zayan | Megan K. Stack, Sebastian Rotella and Jailan Zayan,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt - A charter jet packed with French tourists plummeted into the Red Sea off this lively beach resort yesterday, killing all 148 people on board.

French and Egyptian officials said the crash was apparently caused by mechanical trouble, not terrorism, but they did not say what led to that conclusion.

The Boeing 737 owned by Egyptian-based Flash Airlines had just taken off at 5 a.m. when the pilot apparently tried to turn back to shore and the plane pitched into the deep, shark-infested Strait of Tiran. Except for one Japanese, one Moroccan and 13 Egyptian crew members, all the people on board were French, authorities said.

The cause of the crash remained a mystery last night as searchers hunted the waters for the flight data and voice recorders. The crew didn't put out a distress call, airport officials said, and other planes took off and landed smoothly on the clear morning.

The aircraft simply vanished from the radar a few minutes after taking flight. "There was a problem at takeoff," France's deputy transportation minister, Dominique Bussereau, told reporters at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport. "It tried to turn back, and ... it crashed."

During a holiday season in which travelers' nerves were jangled and numerous flights, including some originating in France, have been canceled for fear that they might be targeted for attack, yesterday's crash raised immediate worries about terrorism.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was on vacation with his family in Sharm el Sheik at the time of the crash. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a frequent visitor to this coastal haven, was to visit Blair to discuss Middle East peace prospects.

Egyptian and French officials were quick to emphasize that there was no reason to suspect that the plane had been attacked, and France wasn't expected to open a counterterrorism probe.

The crash "is absolutely not the result of a terror act," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Maher told reporters, "but is linked to a technical failure of the plane."

Radar images indicate that the plane took off and turned left as normal, then suddenly straightened out, turned right and tumbled into the sea. The last communication with the plane was at 5,300 feet.

"There was a malfunction that made it difficult for the crew to save the plane," Civil Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafeeq told Egyptian television.

The plane had arrived overnight from Venice. It dropped off tourists from Italy, reloaded with the departing French vacationers and was headed for Cairo to change crews before flying to Paris. The jet was serviced in Norway, and no mechanical problems had been found during inspections before takeoff.

Yesterday, sodden suitcases and body parts bobbed in the water a few miles from shore, along with shoes, life preservers and shards of the plane. The jet fell into the water between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over a deep underwater crevice teeming with sharks.

Vacationers watched solemnly from the shore as military helicopters hovered low over the sea. Boats from nearby diving companies flocked to join the military boats in their search. But blood clouded the water because sharks were eating the bodies, Egypt's MENA news agency reported. By yesterday afternoon, officials from the charter company said they weren't expecting to find survivors.

France dispatched a top diplomat and police officers specialized in identifying corpses to work with Egyptian authorities "to shed light as quickly as possible on this catastrophe that has plunged our country into mourning," French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said in Paris.

French prosecutors also opened an investigation for "involuntary homicide" in the case, a routine step needed to speed cooperation with Egypt, according to French officials.

"Everything will be done in coordination with the Egyptian authorities in order to clarify the causes of the crash," Jean-Louis Nadal, the chief prosecutor in Paris, said at a news conference at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

At Egypt's request, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board will send an investigator.

In Paris, friends and family turned up at Charles de Gaulle to collect the homecoming vacationers. Television footage showed them looking up at information screens showing that the flight was delayed, then bursting into tears, hugging or simply staring in shock as news of the crash spread. Police and airport personnel bused them to an airport hotel, where doctors and counselors were waiting.

Most of the French victims' families had flown to Cairo by last night and were expected to arrive in Sharm el Sheik this morning in hopes of identifying remains. Most of the passengers were members of a group tour organized by FRAM, one of France's largest travel operators. FRAM said it had booked 125 people - mostly families or groups of friends - on the flight. Some were children.

In Cairo, weeping relatives of the crew members crowded the Flash Airlines offices to demand information about their kin.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Times staff writer Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris contributed to this report.

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