Friday 28 October 2016

Experts say explosion brought down EgyptAir flight with loss of 66 lives

As search for the black boxes continues, it has emerged that Flight 804 may have been downed by an internal explosion that tore the Airbus aircraft apart

Raf Sanchez

Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30

Search: Handbags, shoes, clothing and pieces of seat upholstery are among the items recovered by Egyptian naval personnel searching for bodies amd wreckage from EgyptAir Flight 804 in the Mediterranean north of Alexandra Photo: Egyptian Armed Forces via AP
Search: Handbags, shoes, clothing and pieces of seat upholstery are among the items recovered by Egyptian naval personnel searching for bodies amd wreckage from EgyptAir Flight 804 in the Mediterranean north of Alexandra Photo: Egyptian Armed Forces via AP
Unbearable pain: Relatives of EgyptAir stewardess Yara Hani, who was aboard Flight 804, comfort each other during a ceremony at a church in Cairo Photo: AFP/Getty Images
All hope gone: A lifevest from the crashed plane Photo: Egyptian Armed Force/PA Wire

Data from the final moments before EgyptAir flight 804 crashed into the Mediterranean suggest an "internal explosion" tore through the right side of the aircraft, a pilot said last night.

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Investigators trying to determine whether the Airbus A320 was brought down by terrorism or a technical fault are poring over a series of warnings indicating smoke filled the cabin shortly before it disappeared from radar.

French authorities yesterday confirmed that smoke detectors went off aboard the flight a few minutes before it crashed, but said it was not clear what caused the smoke or fire.

A commercial pilot with a major European airline said that other parts of the data log suggested that windows in the right side of the cockpit were blown out by an explosion inside the aircraft.

"It looks like the right front and side window were blown out, most probably from inside out," said the pilot, who flies an A330 similar to the crashed A320 and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The data was taken from the plane's ACARS system, which sends short transmissions from the aircraft to receivers on the ground.

Until investigators find the aircraft's black boxes, which are still missing in the Mediterranean, the Acars offers the best information on what was happening on board.

Three different warnings showed there were faults in the windows next to the co-pilot, suggesting they could have been blasted outwards by an on-board bomb.

That does not mean the explosion came from the cockpit, but indicates the right side of the plane was more badly damaged than the left.

The pilot suggested the smoke detectors may have been triggered not by fire but by fog which filled the cabin as it lost air pressure in the moments after the explosion.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian military released images of shoes, handbags and other forlorn items pulled out of the sea near the crash site.

Video footage showed unused life vests and torn parts of seats scattered across the deck of an Egyptian naval ship.

French and Egyptian ships are focused on trying to recover the black boxes, which would reveal what was said in the cockpit before the plane crashed.

Although no terrorist group has claimed responsibility, French detectives are examining a pool of around 85,000 people with "red badge" security clearance that gives them access to restricted areas of Charles de Gaulle airport.

The task is complicated by the fact that many work for sub-contractors and turnover is high.

Screenings are often limited to checking an employee has no criminal convictions and does not appear on a terror watch list.

Last December, around 70 red badges were withdrawn from staff at Charles de Gaulle who were found to have praised the attacks in Paris, prayed at mosques linked to radicalism or shown signs of growing religiosity, such as refusing to shake hands with women.

A French trade union also warned that short stop-overs like that made by Flight 804, which was on the ground a little over an hour, gave little time for security staff to carry out thorough security checks.

With no bodies to bury, Egypt continued to mourn the loss of 30 of its citizens, but was unable to carry out formal funerals.

In a dark premonition of things to come, it emerged that vandals had once daubed the crashed aircraft with graffiti reading: "We will bring this plane down".

The New York Times reported that the vandalism was done two years ago and was a protest against Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the Egyptian president who seized power in a coup, rather than a jihadist threat.

EgyptAir fired a number of staff with alleged Muslim Brotherhood sympathies in 2013 as part of a general purge of suspected Islamists after the military takeover.

In the weeks following the Paris attacks last November, French police said Arabic graffiti such as "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) were found daubed on EasyJet and Vueling planes at Charles de Gaulle and Lyon airports.

Police played down any link with the attacks, though they acknowledged that such graffiti had been found on a number of planes in the months before the terror strikes.

The discoveries raised fears that a bomb could be planted on a plane at an airport in France, but Easyjet and the French authorities insisted there was nothing to worry about.

Nearly half of the 66 people who were killed in Thursday's crash were Egyptians, many of them young men and women forced to look overseas for work, families splintered by reluctant migration.

Their journeys tell similar stories of an economy weakened by decades of corruption and mismanagement.

Tourism, still a mainstay for millions, has been the worst hit, and most Egyptians fear their country's latest tragedy will only deepen the crisis.

"The plane crash only makes things worse," said Ibrahim el-Ghitany, senior researcher at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"It adds a lot of suspicion on the security situation in Egypt, which on its own will affect the tourism industry."

A cocktail of fears is keeping visitors away after a series of deadly incidents, from plane accidents and riots to the military's mistaken slaughter of several Mexican tourists and the gruesome murder of a young Italian student after he was detained by Egyptian police.

The tragedies all represent threats to the economic stability of the country, experts said.

Those fears were almost immediately reflected on the Cairo stock market, which lost $300m (€267m) of its value in a dramatic plunge on Thursday, the last trading day of the week in Egypt.

Militants waging war on the Egyptian state have warned that they aim to sow economic devastation as well as fear with their attacks, most recently in the bombing of a Russian charter plane last October, with a small device smuggled on board inside a soft drink can.

"The Islamic State in Sinai, and the group that prec eded it, have been running self- declared economic warfare against Egypt since 2013," said Zack Gold, an expert in militancy in Egypt and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East.

The government's handling of past crises has done little to reassure Egyptians, or those who might consider visiting the country, that officials are stepping up efforts to protect them.

It took four months for the government to publicly acknowledge that the Russian holiday flight was brought down by a bomb.

Although it has been quicker to consider a terrorist role in last Thursday's crash, many of the mourning relatives say Cairo is focusing on the details of the investigation at their expense.

"Everyone in our family went to the airport. Not a single official told us what was going on, we could not get an explanation, we did not know what happened to him," said Ehab el-Hawwary, a cousin of Nasser Hamdy Hammad, a 45-year-old father of five, who died in Thursday's crash.

"We demand nothing but to find out the truth of what happened, what caused the plane to crash."

His is an anger echoed by other relatives, tormented by accounts of the terrifying last moments of the plane, and without even bodies to anchor their grief.

There is still no explanation for the disaster. Flight data shows parts of the doomed aircraft were filling with smoke minutes before it vanished from radar screens.

It may be weeks or even months, if at all, before investigators find the black box data recorders that can help clarify what happened.

Part of the search area has a seabed with challenging geology, and few have forgotten the two-year search needed to find the same parts of an Air France flight that crashed into the Atlantic in 2009.

Security experts say the lack of any claim of responsibility from a terrorist group would be a striking departure from the usual working methods.

"If it is terrorism, it is very strange that no one has claimed it yet," said Mr Gold, who pointed out that the attack on the Russian plane was claimed within hours by Isil, though few believed the group at first.

The hunt for the black boxes continues this morning headed by a French team of investigators.

They contain cockpit voice recordings and data readings, from the Airbus A320 which vanished from radar early on Thursday. The head of the Egyptian investigation team was quoted by Egypt's state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper as saying a preliminary report into the crash would be presented in a month.

Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathi told reporters an additional challenge in the hunt for the black boxes was the depth of the Mediterranean in the area under search. "What I understand is that it is 3,000 (metres)," he said.

That would place the black box locator beacons, which last for 30 days, on the edge of their detectable range from the surface based on the type of acoustic equipment typically used during the first stages of a search, according to a report into the 2009 crash of an Air France jet in the Atlantic.

"No important devices from the plane have been retrieved so far," Fathi said.

The flight data transmitted before the crash was sent through an automatic system called the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which routinely downloads maintenance and fault data to the airline operator.

Aviation Herald, a respected Austria-based website specialising in air accidents, first published a burst of seven messages broadcast over three minutes. These included alarms about smoke in the lavatory as well as the aircraft's avionics area, under the cockpit.

Plane visited 'unpredictable' airport

The EgyptAir plane that crashed in the Mediterranean visited five airports in the 48 hours before it disappeared off radar screens. Here is a look at security at those five sites:

PARIS: The plane's last stop was Charles de Gaulle airport, the second-biggest in Europe for passenger traffic. Of its 100,000 employees, thousands are border police officers, customs personnel, soldiers and private guards who patrol daily to secure public areas, baggage sorting sections and tarmacs.

French authorities increased random security checks, video surveillance and sniffer dogs after last year's deadly extremist attacks. Scores of staff members had badges revoked amid suspicions of radicalism.

CAIRO: The plane had arrived in Paris from the Egyptian capital. The crash is the third aircraft incident involving Egypt in eight months, and renewed security concerns surrounding Egyptian airports.

TUNIS: Before Paris, the plane made a round-trip to the Tunisian capital. Tunisian authorities have increased security repeatedly since extremist attacks on a museum and a beach killed dozens of foreign tourists last year.

ASMARA: The plane also made a round-trip flight to the capital of the African nation of Eritrea. The US Office of Diplomatic Security said last year that Asmara airport security is "unpredictable".

BRUSSELS: The previous round-trip from Cairo was to Brussels, where Isil-linked suicide bombers attacked the airport during March assaults on the city that killed 32 people. The airport has reopened partially with extra security measures, including bag checks before entering the terminal.

Sunday Independent

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