Sources: FBI taking over investigation
NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) -- The FBI is taking over the investigation of the crash of EgyptAir 990, Clinton administration officials said today, an indication that officials think that the plane may have been brought down by a criminal act.
The Associated Press learned that someone in the cockpit -- apparently someone in the co-pilot's seat -- uttered a prayer before the jet's autopilot disengaged and the airliner started its fatal plunge. The wording of the prayer was not immediately disclosed. Investigators determined the timing after synchronizing the
cockpit voice recorder with the flight data recorder, a source close to the probe said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, although the phrase heard on the cockpit recorder was characterized as a prayer, that doesn't necessarily mean it was
related to the cause of the plunge. Arabic speakers commonly make references to God in everyday statements, and this is particularly
true of Egyptians. For instance, the phrase "inshallah," or "God willing," is frequently used in everyday conversation for the most mundane statements.
The source said it was unclear who was in the co-pilot's seat, whether it was the co-pilot who was at the controls when the plane took off from New York or somebody else. Two Clinton administration officials, speaking on condition they not be further identified, said the FBI is taking over the investigation from the National Transportation Safety Board.
"The NTSB investigates accidents, the FBI investigates other things," said one of the officials. Under law, the FBI has jurisdiction over destruction of an aircraft and crimes committed aboard an aircraft.
President Clinton, during his trip to Turkey, was briefed today by National Security Adviser Sandy Berger on what has been learned
and on the course of the investigation.
If investigators conclude the plane was brought down by foul play, they will try to determine whether the perpetrator was
assisted by a terrorist group in a suicide plot or acted alone because of a personal problem, the source close to the probe said.
However, a senior intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there still "isn't any reason to believe" that terrorism was involved. Language experts from the CIA and other intelligence agencies were assisting in "trying to interpret what was on the tape," the official said.
The autopilot disconnected just before the airliner started its high-speed plunge from its cruising altitude of 33,000 feet. All 217 people aboard were killed in the Oct. 31 crash.
In addition to the disconnected autopilot, the flight data recorder has shown that the plane's elevators -- the two horizontal flaps on the plane's tail that move down or up to raise or lower the plane's nose -- were at different angles during the descent, indicating a major problem.
The elevators are designed to operate in unison. Investigators are trying to determine if the elevator split was caused by two people struggling for control in the cockpit, the plane's breakup, a jamming problem in one of the elevators or crew panic. The EgyptAir Boeing 767 crashed into the Atlantic about 40
minutes after takeoff from Kennedy International on a flight to Cairo. It had flown to New York from Los Angeles.
Speculation about a possible hijacking, crew fight or pilot suicide in the EgyptAir crash has lingered because of a combination of events: the autopilot shut-off during what otherwise seemed to be a normal flight, the plane's nose was pointed down, its throttles were cut back and its engines then shut off.
Veteran pilots had difficulty envisioning an emergency scenario that would prompt the crew to take those steps in that order or
without prior failure of other aircraft systems.
After a two-week search, the cockpit voice recorder was recovered from the ocean floor late Saturday just ahead of worsening weather.
Efforts to find clues in the rest of the plane's still-submerged wreckage were suspended Monday because of the weather and high
waves, Navy Chief Petty Officer Jack O'Neill said. NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said the only time in recent memory the board had transferred oversight to the FBI under similar
circumstances was in 1987, when a Pacific Southwest Airlines plane crashed north of Los Angeles.
The FBI and the board later concluded that a disgruntled worker shot the crew members, causing the plane to crash and kill all 43