U.S., Egypt continue to differ on jet crash; Cairo rejects theory of suicide of pilot, but he's still the focus


WASHINGTON -- After a week of examining the cockpit voice recorder and other evidence from EgyptAir Flight 990, federal investigators remain focused on the actions of a reserve pilot who they believe may have deliberately crashed the jet into the Atlantic Ocean, government officials said yesterday.

Investigators continue working to develop what one called "a verified, acceptable transcript" that the Egyptians and Americans can agree to, one government official said. They are not expected to finish for at least a few days.

"There is no rush to judgment," the official said.

But there is no new theory. Stung by the furious reaction of the Egyptian government, U.S. investigators have re-examined the evidence, a process that they say has yet to uncover another plausible explanation for the crash.

Air safety investigators say that the National Transportation Safety Board will "characterize" the transcript once it is complete, but not release it.

By law, the safety board releases such transcripts when it opens public hearings, or, if it decides not to hold a hearing as part of its investigation, when it releases the majority of its factual findings.

But if the case is handed over to the FBI, as the chairman of the safety board has said the board is considering doing, then the release of the transcript would be the FBI's decision. Federal law bars releasing the tape.

Officials in Egypt have bitterly rejected the possibility that the reserve pilot, Gameel el-Batouty, may have been responsible, an assertion that is based on their interpreta-tion of words spoken in the final seconds of the flight and on their view that Batouty did not suffer from obvious emotional problems that might have caused him to commit such an act.

The EgyptAir flight, from New York to Cairo, crashed into the ocean on Oct. 31, about 60 miles south of Nantucket, Mass., killing all 217 people aboard. The crash occurred about half an hour after takeoff, just after the Boeing 767 reached its cruising altitude of 33,000 feet.

Human error rejected

Yesterday in Cairo, Egypt's transportation minister seemed to absolve the EgyptAir crew of wrongdoing, telling the Egyptian Parliament that the crash was not a result of human error. The statement by the minister, Ibrahim el-Dumeiri, was Cairo's first official assessment of the crash.

"There were attempts to imply that the accident happened as a result of human error or a lack of proper maintenance, but Egyptian documents prove the fallacy of that direction," Dumeiri said.

Without offering another theory to explain the crash, he said that investigators might need a year or more to determine the cause. Dumeiri said that a phrase, referring to God, spoken by Batouty before the plane began its steep dive, was not indicative of someone about to commit suicide.

U.S. officials confirmed a report in Newsweek magazine saying that Batouty had repeatedly uttered the phrase at about the time the plane's autopilot was disconnected and the airliner began its descent toward the sea.

Investigators cooperating

Although the Americans and Egyptians appear to be at odds over their theories about the crash, they are working together. Dumeiri said that Egypt was sending a psychologist and a voice specialist to the United States.

American officials said that several FBI agents have flown to Cairo with the approval of the Egyptian government to work with authorities there.

U.S. officials said their review of the evidence was continuing, focused on voice and data recorders, radar-tracking information and small sections of the plane found floating at sea.

A remote-controlled submarine, equipped with video cameras, continues mapping the wreckage on the sea floor as weather permits, with aircraft experts on board the support ship helping to identify what is on the video monitors.

Investigators are working with scraps of evidence, including information from the flight data recorder that shows that the elevators, the horizontal surfaces on the tail that pilots use to raise or lower the nose, moved in opposite directions.

They are supposed to move in unison, but the one on the pilot's side was deflected to raise the nose, and the one on the first officer's side was deflected to lower the nose. This could occur if two pilots were leaning heavily on their controls in opposite directions.

Boeing has said the 767's elevators usually move no more than 2 to 3 degrees up or down when in flight. The board said last week that the two were split by about 7 degrees, which would mean that each was deflected further than is normal in ordinary operations, but in opposite directions.

Pub Date: 11/23/99

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