EgyptAir jet vanishes after mid-air plunge over Mediterranean
CAIRO/ATHENS, May 19 (Reuters) – An EgyptAir jet carrying 66 passengers and crew from Paris to Cairo disappeared from radar over the Mediterranean on Thursday in what Egypt said could have been a terrorist attack.
The Egyptian civil aviation ministry initially said Greek authorities had found "floating material" and life jackets likely to be from the plane, an Airbus A320. Greek defence sources told Reuters the material was discovered in the sea 230 miles (370km) south of the island of Crete.
However, late on Thursday, EgyptAir Vice President Ahmed Adel told CNN that the wreckage had not been found.
"We stand corrected on finding the wreckage because what we identified is not a part of our plane. So the search and rescue is still going on," Adel said.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered the civil aviation ministry, the army’s search and rescue centre, the navy, and the air force to take all necessary measures to locate debris from the aircraft.
In a statement issued by his office, Sisi also ordered an investigative committee formed by the civil aviation ministry to immediately start investigating causes for the plane’s disappearance.
Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said it was too early to rule out any explanation for the crash, including an attack like the one blamed for bringing down a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last year. The country’s aviation minister said a terrorist attack was more likely than a technical failure.
Officials from multiple U.S. agencies told Reuters that a U.S. review of satellite imagery so far had not produced any signs of an explosion aboard the EgyptAir flight.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the conclusion was the result of a preliminary examination of imagery and cautioned against media reports suggesting the United States believed a bomb was responsible for the crash.
They said the United States has not ruled out any possible causes for the crash, including mechanical failure, terrorism or a deliberate act by the pilot or crew.
Greece had deployed aircraft and a frigate to search for the missing plane. Egypt said it would lead the investigation and France would participate. Paris said three investigators would arrive in Egypt on Thursday evening.
In Washington, President Barack Obama received a briefing on the disappearance from his advisor for homeland security and counter-terrorism, the White House said. A White House spokesman said it was too early to know the cause of the crash and offered condolences.
Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos said the Airbus swerved 90 degrees to the left, spun through 360 degrees to the right and plunged from 37,000 feet to 15,000 feet before vanishing from Greek radar screens.
According to Greece’s civil aviation chief, calls from Greek air traffic controllers to flight MS804 went unanswered just before it left Greek airspace, and it disappeared from radar screens soon afterwards.
There was no official indication of a possible cause, whether technical failure, human error or sabotage. Ultra-hardline Islamists have targeted airports, airliners and tourist sites in Europe, Egypt, Tunisia and other Middle Eastern countries over the past few years.
Asked if he could rule out terrorist involvement, the Egyptian premier told reporters: "We cannot exclude anything at this time or confirm anything. All the search operations must be concluded so we can know the cause."
French President Francois Hollande also said the cause was unknown. "No hypothesis can be ruled out, nor can any be favoured over another."
The aircraft was carrying 56 passengers, including one child and two infants, and 10 crew, EgyptAir said. They included 30 Egyptian and 15 French nationals, along with citizens of 10 other countries.
The Canadian government said on Thursday that two Canadian citizens were aboard and Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion said Canadian officials were working with authorities to confirm if any other Canadians were on the flight.
The U.S. State Department said there was no indication that any American citizens were onboard.
"LIVES ARE SO CHEAP"
At the Cairo airport, a man sat on a brown leather couch crying with his hands covering his face. "How long will Egypt live if human lives are so cheap?" he said.
The mother of a flight attendant rushed out of the VIP hall where families waited in tears. She said the last time her daughter called her was Wednesday night. "They haven’t told us anything," she said.
Some relatives tried to beat up a photographer working for EgyptAir who took several pictures of the families waiting in the hall. Security officials intervened and escorted him out.
With its archaeological sites and Red Sea resorts, Egypt is a traditional destination for Western tourists. But the industry has been badly hit by the downing of a Russian Metrojet flight last October, in which all 224 people onboard were killed, as well as by an Islamist insurgency and a string of bomb attacks.
A320s normally seat 150, which means the EgyptAir plane was barely a third full.
Greek air traffic controllers spoke to the pilot as the jet flew over the island of Kea, in what was thought to be the last broadcast from the aircraft, and no problems were reported.
But just ahead of the handover to Egyptian controllers, calls to the plane went unanswered.
"About seven miles before the aircraft entered Cairo airspace, Greek controllers tried to contact the pilot but he was not responding," said Kostas Litzerakis, head of Greece’s civil aviation department. Shortly after exiting Greek airspace, it disappeared from radars, he said.
In Paris, a police source said investigators were interviewing officers who were on duty at the Roissy airport on Wednesday evening to find out whether they heard or saw anything suspicious. "We are in the early stages here," the source said.
Airbus said the missing A320 was delivered to EgyptAir in November 2003 and had operated about 48,000 flight hours. The missing flight’s pilot had clocked up 6,275 hours of flying experience, including 2,101 hours on the A320, while the first officer had 2,766 hours, EgyptAir said.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, said no conclusions could be drawn yet but terrorism was a very possible cause.
"If terrorism was indeed the cause, it would reveal a whole new level of vulnerability to aircraft – not only from those flights originating in the Middle East, but to those departing from the heart of Europe and with, at least in theory, far better airport defences," he said.
Other countries offered to help in the investigation, including the United States, where engine maker Pratt & Whitney is based.
Russia and Western governments have said the Metrojet plane that crashed on October 31 was probably brought down by a bomb, and the Islamic State militant group said it had smuggled an explosive device on board.
That crash called into question Egypt’s campaign to contain Islamist violence. Militants have stepped up attacks on Egyptian soldiers and police since Sisi, then serving as army chief, toppled elected president Mohamed Mursi, an Islamist, in 2013 after mass protests against his rule.
In March, an EgyptAir plane flying from Alexandria to Cairo was hijacked and forced to land in Cyprus by a man with what authorities said was a fake suicide belt. He was arrested after giving himself up.
EgyptAir has a fleet of 57 Airbus and Boeing jets, including 15 of the Airbus A320 family of aircraft, according to airfleets.com.