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White House says no unusual communication from plane; official doubts terrorism involved

Updated:

WASHINGTON (AP) _ White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there were no unusual communications from the cockpit of an American Airlines plane that crashed Monday in New York. The head of the U.S. safety board said current information indicates the crash was an accident.

Fleischer said President Bush was informed of the crash within minutes of its occurrence in a residential section of Queens, and that Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge hastened to the White House Situation Room to confer with other senior officials on a conference call.

At a White House briefing, Fleischer said the National Transportation Safety Board had been named the lead investigative agency into the crash, in which an Airbus crashed shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Marion Blakey, chairwoman of the NTSB, said, ``All information we have currently is that this is an accident.''

The crash triggered moments of intense concern inside the administration, struggling to cope with the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax outbreak that followed a few weeks later.

But initial information seemed to allay concern that the American Airlines crash was another bout of terrorism. Several administration officials, including some at the White House, said that based on preliminary information the incident did not appear to be a terrorist attack.

Blakey said the flight data recorder had been recovered and would be analyzed by federal safety experts. Fleischer said there had been no credible threats against airplanes in advance of the crash.

The White House spokesman declined to rule terrorism in or out as a possible cause of the crash but said he would not dispute the assessment of U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, who said there was no preliminary evidence of terrorism.

The airlines have taken a financial beating since the suicide hijackings of Sept. 11, and officials have worked to rebuild public confidence in the industry. ``The president continues to believe that people need to travel,'' said Fleischer.

An administration source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said preliminary reports led the FBI to believe there was an explosion aboard the plane, and was investigating whether it was an accident, mechanical failure or an act of sabotage. Fleischer said he could not confirm the report.

``There have been, according to eyewitnesses, information that an engine was seen being detached from the plane and that it landed separately from the main body of the airplane,'' he said.

With the nation on high alert, a result of the Sept. 11 attacks, Fleischer said Bush was in the Situation Room, convening a national security meeting, when he was handed a note shortly before 9:30 a.m. that a plane had gone down.

Bush spoke with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki and ``expressed to both of them his deepest sympathy for the people of New York to be enduring any other trauma,'' Fleischer said.

The spokesman stepped to the microphones in the White House briefing room less than three hours after the plane crashed with 255 passengers and crew members aboard. Several eyewitnesses reported hearing explosions aboard the plane, and a piece of an engine came to rest outside a gas station in the Queens section of New York.

``There were no unusual communications with the cockpit,'' Fleischer said. He said investigators had not yet found the ``black box'' that records important in-flight information.

He also said Bush had dispatched federal investigators and search-and-rescue personnel to the scene.

New York area airports were closed in the wake of the crash, and federal officials briefly considered a nationwide shutdown. But Fleischer said officials did not intend to do that, and indicated the New York airports wouldn't be closed for long.

Bush postponed a scheduled interview with Russian and American reporters so he could monitor the investigation into the crash of Flight 587, which had just taken off from John F. Kennedy International Airport en route to the Dominican Republic. He meets Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, opening three days of talks in Washington and Texas.

Intelligence agencies, the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration were reviewing all recent intelligence for any signs that terrorism was involved but an hour after the crash there was no evidence pointing to an attack, said a U.S. official speaking only on condition of anonymity.

``They are comparing information to see if it provides any insight into what transpired. At this point, there's no indication of a terrorist attack, but it certainly can't be ruled out in current environment,'' the official said.
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