Navy divers arriving to hunt for downed plane's black boxes

Tuesday, November 2nd 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) -- Grieving relatives hoping for answers and Navy divers searching for clues converged on this famous resort, now the command post for the vast investigation into the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990.

More than 70 family members flew from Egypt to New York during the night and were expected in Newport later today, joining about 80 others who arrived Monday. Also heading into the area was the USS Grapple, carrying divers who will try to retrieve the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders.

A signal believed to be from one of the "black boxes" was detected Monday by Coast Guard searchers, who also found the first large piece of wreckage from the plane. The search is concentrated 60 miles south of Nantucket Island in water some 270 feet deep.

The boxes could provide key clues for hundreds of investigators trying to determine why the Cairo-bound Boeing 767 plunged 33,000 feet without warning into the sea early Sunday, not long after leaving Kennedy International Airport in New York. All 217 people on board were killed.

The investigation is expected to take months and cover many areas, from potential human error and mechanical failure to the possibility of sabotage. Authorities say there is no evidence suggesting foul play.

Still, the FBI took a bomb-sniffing dog to an unidentified Los Angeles hotel after an EgyptAir crew member complained to management that a briefcase had been tampered with, CBS News reported Monday.

The dog reacted to sugar in a hotel room, The New York Times reported today, citing a law enforcement source. The sugar and loose wires found in the room are being analyzed, but investigators reportedly don't believe there was ever a bomb or bomb material in the room.

Egypt's government confirmed today that 24 Egyptian military officers, including two brigadier generals, a colonel and a major, were on the plane. The officers were returning to Egypt after undergoing training in the United States, part of extensive military exchanges between the two countries.

The officers' ranks had been kept off the passenger manifest for security reasons, Egyptian officials said. FBI investigators in Newport said they had no information suggesting that the presence of Egyptian military officers might have made the flight a sabotage target.

The victims also included 106 Americans, many of them retirees embarking on group tours to the Nile River region of Egypt. George Arian, a friend of one of the victims and owner of an Arabic newspaper in Jersey City, N.J., was on the flight that brought the first group of relatives from New York to Rhode Island. He said some passengers panicked briefly as the plane took off from Kennedy airport.

"It was a shock. Some people were crying hard," Arian said. "Every lady or every man was thinking of his loved one." The relatives were driven to a Newport hotel and offered the services of grief counselors. A memorial service was planned for this evening.

Across Narragansett Bay from Newport, crash debris and human remains were being unloaded at Quonset Point, a former Navy base where investigators will try to reconstruct the shattered plane. A temporary mortuary was being set up in a Quonset Point gymnasium, and a team including forensic pathologists, dental experts, X-ray technicians, forensic anthropologists, and the FBI disaster squad was deployed to help identify the remains.

The Coast Guard, fearing bad weather by tonight, has stepped up its search for debris and human remains. Only one body has been recovered, but authorities said searchers are finding evidence of remains.

Debris collected so far -- some of it by student sailors from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy -- includes shoes, purses and twisted, sodden teddy bears. None of the retrieved debris has any burn marks that might indicate a fire or explosion, search officials said.

Government rules require the capsules holding flight data and cockpit voice recorders be able to withstand pressure at 20,000 feet under water and resist corrosion from salt water for 30 days. The acoustic pings are supposed to be emitted every second for 30 days.

The sonar-equipped Grapple helped retrieve wreckage from the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off New York's Long Island and the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111 off Nova Scotia. But Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said divers face an especially daunting task this time. Flight 990 crashed in water twice as deep as Flight 800.

Divers will have to don helmets and be connected by hoses to an air supply on the Grapple. The depth will limit how long they can be below.

The plane's co-pilot, Adel Anwar, had been on his way back to Egypt to get married Friday. Eager to help with wedding preparations, he had swapped shifts and took a colleague's place in the cockpit that fateful night.

"It was just another regular flight," Anwar's tearful brother, Tarek, said in Cairo. "Or so we thought."