Gulf Air voice recorder found

Thursday, August 24th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MANAMA, Bahrain – Sobbing family members, their eyes bloodshot from a night of waiting, collapsed in anguish Thursday as names of their loved ones were listed as victims of the Gulf Air crash that killed all 143 aboard.

Grieving relatives attended a meeting where the names of the victims were read aloud by a Gulf Air official, his voice choking on the words. "This is the worst day of my life. I lost a part of me," cried Khalifa al-Hashil, 45, of Saudi Arabia, whose 35-year-old brother, Mohammed, was on the flight that crashed into the Persian Gulf on Wednesday night.

In the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board said two investigators were heading to Bahrain but had not left yet. At the crash site, meanwhile, searchers retrieved the cockpit voice recorder Thursday from the shallow Gulf waters, said Ali Ahmadi, a Gulf Air vice president.

The flight data recorder from the Airbus A320 had been found earlier. Both were intact, according to Bahrain civil defense chief James Windsor, who received the voice cockpit recorder from U.S. Navy divers who brought it to shore.

U.S. Navy helicopters, destroyers and an oceangoing tug with a 10-ton crane helped lead the search and rescue effort a few miles off the northern coast of Bahrain, which is the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet. Bahraini Crown Prince Sheik Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa personally directed the effort, the U.S. military said.

By midday Thursday, most of the floating debris had been collected. Only a couple of shoes and some yellow foam bobbed on the surface.

Fleet spokesman Cdr. Jeff Gradeck's office said the waters at the crash site were less than 40 feet deep. Windsor said much of the debris field was in water only six to nine feet deep.

"On the seabed, you'll find bits of aircraft all over the place, spread over the next few kilometers," Windsor said, looking down from the bow of a small boat cruising over shadowy bits of wings and fuselage less than 10 feet below.

Thirty-six of the 143 people on board GF072, an evening flight from Cairo to Manama, were children, officials said.

Relatives were brought to a hotel in the capital, Manama, to identify victims from photos taken after all the bodies – badly disfigured from the impact – were recovered. Some women, dressed in floor-length black chadors, could barely stand when names of their loved ones were read. Other relatives fell to their knees weeping and screaming.

Funerals for some Bahraini victims, customarily held hours after death, were not expected until at least Friday, largely because of trouble identifying shattered remains.

There was no immediate word on what caused the crash.

Ahmadi said investigations have begun, but he added that Bahraini officials will wait for the NTSB experts and others from France's Airbus Industrie for a more thorough probe. The NTSB often sends experts abroad when a small country without NTSB-type expertise requests the agency's help.

International civil aviation rules call for an investigation conducted by the country where the accident occurred with participation from countries where the plane was registered, operated, manufactured and designed. Airbus said four of its experts left for Bahrain before dawn Thursday, and the French government's Accident and Inquiry Office said it is sending two experts.

An air traffic controller at the Bahrain airport, reached by telephone, described watching the plane attempt to land.

"The plane was near the runway, but didn't land," he said, asking that his name not be used. "It circled two times and the third time it crashed into the sea."

Ibrahim Al-Hamer, Bahrain's undersecretary for civil aviation, said the circling was not unusual and the crew reported nothing out of the ordinary. He added that the captain, whom he did not name, had 21 years of experience.

"I could not believe my eyes," said Sobeih, 27, a resident of the nearby neighborhood of Al-Fodha who saw the plane crash. He would not give his full name.

"When I saw it heading toward the sea nose down, I screamed 'Oh my God, this thing is going down!"' he said.

Sobeih and Riyadh, 24, another Al-Fodha resident who did not want his full name used, said the plane flew unusually low over their heads heading to the runway, but took a sharp turn toward the sea.

Both men said the plane returned minutes later flying even lower but headed straight into the water. They said unusual noises came from the plane's engines, but they saw no flames.

Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the emir of Bahrain, declared three days of mourning.

Gulf Air said 135 passengers and eight crew members were on board. Sixty-three passengers were Egyptian, 34 Bahraini, 12 Saudi Arabian, nine Palestinian, six from the United Arab Emirates, three Chinese, two British and one each from Canada, Oman, Kuwait, Sudan, Australia and a diplomatic courier from the United States.

The crew included two Bahrainis and one each from Oman, the Philippines, Poland, India, Morocco and Egypt.

In Cairo, where the flight originated, relatives of passengers departed on a special Gulf Air flight to Bahrain to identify bodies. One relative there tried to attack news cameramen and complained about the lack of information.

Gulf Air is owned by Bahrain, the Gulf states of Oman and Qatar, as well as Abu Dhabi, the largest of seven sheikdoms making up the United Arab Emirates. Based in Bahrain, it flies to 53 international destinations.

The plane, delivered to Gulf Air in September 1994, had accumulated 17,177 flight hours in 13,848 flights, the Airbus statement said.

Gulf Air's most recent disaster came in 1983, when a 737-200 crashed during approach to Abu Dhabi after a bomb exploded in the baggage compartment. The crash killed all six crew members and 105 of 111 passengers.