EgyptAir Crash Mystery

Nothing special united the 217 people aboard EgyptAir's ill-fated flight 990. There were babies, teenagers and senior citizens; newlyweds and old married couples; doctors, pharmacists, journalists and lawyers; Christians, Jews and Muslims. Among them were Americans, Egyptians, Syrians, Sudanese and a Chilean - as well as 21 Canadians. Some were going home to Egypt. Others, like Luc Désy of Montreal, were setting off on what they hoped would be a grand adventure to the fabled land of the pyramids. Désy planned to celebrate his 53rd birthday there; only two days before the flight he had talked excitedly about his plans to Yvan Duchesne, president of the Quebec paper company where he worked as staff lawyer. "He was very eager for the trip," Duchesne recalled. "I know he was very happy to leave."

After Flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off Nantucket Island - just 32 minutes into its journey from New York City to Cairo - friends and families were left to share similar stories of the lives so brutally cut short. Their pain was, if possible, made even more acute by an almost total lack of answers to the confounding question: what caused the plane to fall out of the night sky? Most air accidents happen on takeoff or landing. But like two other ill-fated commercial flights in the past three years in the same general area, EgyptAir 990 plunged to its death from its cruising altitude of 10,000 m, leaving only a fuel slick and a heartbreaking trail of shoes, clothing and teddy bears scattered on the sea.

Even worse for some 600 investigators trying to piece together the airliner's last moments, it left even fewer clues than the earlier doomed flights - TWA 800 off Long Island in 1996 and Swissair 111 off Peggys Cove, N.S., last year. The EgyptAir plane, a twin-engined Boeing 767, simply disappeared from radar screens with no sign of an explosion and no last-minute emergency call from the cockpit. The airliner, it was quickly revealed, had a faulty thrust reverser on its left engine - but there was no evidence linking that defect to the crash.

Investigators, stung by rampant speculation that surrounded earlier crashes, refused to lend credence to any theory of what might have happened until they gather concrete evidence. That could take many months. Flight 990 went down 100 km southeast of Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts, in about 80 m of water - almost three times as deep as the waters off Peggys Cove that swallowed Swissair 111 in September, 1998. The navy used a remote-controlled robot to locate the pinging signals of the airliner's so-called black boxes - the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder that will provide vital evidence about the plane's last minutes. But heavy seas slowed the retrieval of the devices.

What investigators did know last week was that the plane was on a wild ride in its final moments. It took off from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport at 1:19 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 31, in calm winds with light fog and mist. At 1:43 a.m. the pilots made their last contact with air controllers in New York as the plane levelled off at 10,000 m. Eight minutes later, at 1:51 a.m., something went terribly wrong. Radar data collected along the plane's route showed that the Boeing 767 began a sharp descent, plunging from 10,000 m to 5,100 m in 40 seconds, reaching a speed of about 1,200 km/h - almost the speed of sound in those conditions.

The plane then rose to 7,300 m before resuming its descent to 3,000 m. At that point, investigator John Clark said last week, radar data showed several objects in the sky that were "no longer consistent with a flying airplane." It took two minutes and 40 seconds for those objects to drift down to 550 m, below the lowest radar sensor. That implied that the plane had broken into several pieces - although cautious officials would not say so publicly. At the same time, they said the airliner's transponder stopped sending out signals at 5,100 m, suggesting that its power supply shut off at that altitude.

None of that, however, explained what happened - or why the jetliner's pilots failed to send any kind of distress signal. For many of the victims' families, that was a special kind of torment. About 300 family members, many from Egypt, gathered in Newport, R.I., where investigators set up their headquarters. Counsellors tried to offer comfort, but for many the grief was overwhelming. It struck home when officials told family members not to expect even to receive the bodies of their relatives. The impact of the crash, they said, was so great that only small body parts would be recovered. Several people, witnesses said later, fainted. Mary Clancy, Canada's consul general in nearby Boston, came to help the half-dozen Canadian families who journeyed to Newport. They were, she said, in "a walking-wounded state. There's a combination of stoicism and shell shock." It was the worst loss of life for Canadians in an air disaster since a 1989 Air Ontario crash killed 24 in Dryden, Ont.

On Saturday, the relatives who came to Newport were taken to a former navy base across from the search site. There, they were able to see the wreckage collected so far from the ocean floor, which was housed in two enormous white tents. Not surprisingly, most of the families chose to avoid the bank of TV cameras set up outside the hotel where they were put up. People have different ways of dealing with grief, however, and Sanna Eissa of Calgary wanted to tell the story of her brother-in-law, Heshem Farouk. Farouk, a 31-year-old co-pilot with EgyptAir, was returning home on the doomed flight after bringing his wife to visit Eissa in Alberta. Eissa held up a photograph of the handsome young man in his pilot's cap, and said her sister believes he's still alive. "She won't accept that he's gone," said Eissa. "I know he's gone, but we need the body. We need it to make sure he is resting in peace."

The 21 Canadians aboard Flight 990 were a disparate group. Salah Adam, 34, was on his way from Toronto to his native Sudan to introduce his parents to his wife, Shaline, 42, and their two young children. All four died. Adam, who came to Toronto in 1991, had become an active member of a Baptist church in the city's east end. The couple worked with new immigrants and planned to visit refugee camps in Sudan during their six-week trip. "It doesn't seem real," said Adam's best friend, Ben Sofia. "I still have a mental picture of him, standing there in my driveway asking me what he could bring back from Sudan for me."

Mark and Anna Kogan, a retired couple in their 60s from Peterborough, Ont., also lost their lives. They emigrated to Canada from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1978, and shared a passion for music and Russian art. Some of the 14 Quebecers aboard Flight 990 were, like Montreal's Désy, part of a tour group headed for a 15-day sojourn in Egypt. Others included Guy Gélinas, 46, a paperworker and scout leader from Shawinigan; sales director Johanne Laferté, 44, an avid traveller from Montreal; and retired museum staffer Carole Bergeron, 55, of Montreal, whom friends described as a born adventurer. Agathe Lavoie, 65, of St-Hyacinthe, was a voracious reader who spent hours studying up on Egypt before the long-awaited trip. "When she travelled, she liked to know the customs of other countries," recalled her neighbour Françoise Benoit.

Best-known among the Quebecers on Flight 990 were Claude Masson, deputy publisher of Montreal's La Presse newspaper, and his wife, Jeannine Bourdages, both 58. Masson, a leading editorial writer in Quebec, won respect from both federalist and separatist politicians. Colleagues said he was looking forward to the trip after a particularly hectic month at his paper. Columnist Lysiane Gagnon recalled how Masson worked late the Friday night before leaving. His assistant had been kept late, too, Gagnon said, and Masson left adhesive notes on her desk saying "merci."

As families and friends mourned, the mystery of what happened to EgyptAir 990 only deepened. The plane's Mideast destination, not surprisingly, sparked speculation that it might have been attacked by terrorists. That was fuelled by the presence onboard of 30 Egyptian military officers, returning to Cairo after undergoing training in the United States on Apache attack helicopters. Several fundamentalist Muslim groups violently oppose the government of President Hosni Mubarak, but none claimed responsibility last week. More significantly, debris and body parts recovered from the Atlantic showed no effects of an explosion.

Other speculation centred on the plane's faulty left thrust reverser, which had been disabled before the fatal flight as permitted under international aviation rules. The device is designed to deflect jet engine thrust forward, and is supposed to be used only on the ground to help brake the plane. In 1991, a Lauda Air Boeing 767-300ER, the same model as the EgyptAir plane and the next one that came off the assembly line in 1989, crashed in Thailand with a loss of 223 lives after a thrust reverser deployed in flight, sending the plane spiralling to the ground. After that crash, however, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration ordered extensive modifications on thrust reversers on 767s to avoid another such tragedy. The main change was a new lock on the reverser, to prevent accidental deployment in flight. EgyptAir said last week that those changes had been made on the airliner that crashed off Nantucket.

At the same time, aviation experts noted that the plane's final flight path did not resemble the out-of-control spiral to be expected from an aircraft suffering from sudden deployment of a thrust reverser. Instead, radar findings showed that it remained on a steady course during its initial, rapid descent, then gradually turned to the right as it rose again before its final plunge.

The jetliner's final path, in fact, was so unusual that some experts wondered whether the crew was in control of the flight in its last minutes - or even conscious. The fast plunge and lack of a distress call suggested that the pilots might have been incapacitated by a sudden loss of cabin pressure, or even overpowered by hijackers.

All those theories, though, were pure speculation without the evidence at the bottom of the sea. The lack of hard information was frustrating for investigators - and even more so for those who lost relatives. Moe Hurani, an Egyptian-born American whose wife, Rihan, died on Flight 990, blinked back tears in Newport as he voiced the questions that so many others shared: "Where are the bodies? What have they found? When will we get to the end of this?" The answers, it was clear, will be a long time coming.

Danger Zone

Aviation experts were quick to scoff at any suggestion of a "Bermuda triangle" of the air in the heavily travelled corridor east of New York City. EgyptAir Flight 990 was the fourth high-profile air tragedy there in the past three years, but causes varied widely. The earlier three:

TWA FLIGHT 800, July 17, 1996: A Boeing 747 jetliner exploded in midair off Long Island, killing all 230 aboard. After initially fearing terrorism, investigators eventually blamed fuel vapours that ignited in an empty tank, but left open what caused the spark.

SWISSAIR FLIGHT 111, Sept. 2, 1998: All 229 aboard died after the Boeing MD-11 slammed into the Atlantic off Peggys Cove, N.S. Authorities said faulty wiring and insulation appeared to have caused a fire on the flight deck.

JOHN F. KENNEDY JR.'S PIPER SARATOGA II, July 16, 1999: The glamorous son of a president died with his wife and her sister while he was piloting his own plane to a family event. The aircraft spiralled into the water, evidently after Kennedy lost control in foggy weather.

Maclean's November 15, 1999