Friday, May 20, 2016

EgyptAir now, EgyptAir then

The crash this week of EgyptAir Flight 804 brings to mind the 1999 crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, in waters off Rhode Island, as fellow journalists and former Projo staffers including Farnaz Fassihi, now with The Wall Street Journal, have reminded me. Herewith two stories -- one by me, another by Farnaz --from that long-ago crash.

And at the end, a few photos from that terrible time...

EgyptAir Flight 990 - Amid the grief, recovery begins - Jetliner's crash sparks outpouring of support
Publication Date: November 2, 1999  Page: A-01  Section: News  Edition: All  

With the world its audience, Rhode Island yesterday became the stage for one of the most heart-wrenching dramas of the modern age: the aftermath of a jetliner crash in which all aboard perished.

Grieving relatives, crowds of officials, and a crush of journalists converged on the state as the last hope of finding any survivors of the 217 people on EgyptAir Flight 990 was officially extinguished.

Efforts now turn to recovering wreckage and human remains, consoling the bereaved, and attempting to solve the mystery of what happened early Halloween morning in the moonlit sky off Massachusetts.

Having just buried a favorite son, Sen. John H. Chafee, Rhode Island now is experiencing a more gruesome and protracted ritual of death. Recovery and identification of victims, in a temporary morgue being opened at the former Navy complex at Quonset Point/Davisville, could take weeks.

Determining what caused the Boeing 767 jet to suddenly plunge more than six miles to destruction south of Nantucket, after leaving New York on a flight to Cairo, almost certainly will take longer. No distress call was received from the doomed jetliner and data recorders have not been recovered, although officials are hopeful they will be.

"I know all of Rhode Island will open its hearts to the victims from wherever they come, and do what it can to make this less painful," Governor Almond said during a late-afternoon news conference at search headquarters at the Navy base in Newport. Apparently, no victims were from Rhode Island.

"After events like this, there are hundreds of people who have suffered the ultimate loss," said James T. Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which has charge of the investigation. "Many of these people are coming to the scene."

By nightfall, some two dozen relatives and friends, many carrying medical records and photographs and accompanied by clergy, Red Cross counselors, police officers, and representatives of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani already had arrived by chartered plane from New York and traveled by bus to Newport's Doubletree Islander Hotel, which the NTSB designated a Family Assistance Center. More relatives are expected to arrive in Rhode Island today, including some accompanying the president of EgyptAir, and state officials were busy finding more rooms at other hotels and inns.

Cairo resident Tamer Omar was with the first group to reach Rhode Island; his brother, Hashem Omar, an EgyptAir pilot, was a passenger on Flight 990.

"Did I ever imagine I would come to this foreign place in search of my brother's body?" Omar said as he rode the bus to Newport. "If we ever find a body?"

"A lot of the family members probably haven't slept," said Red Cross spokesman Brett Davey. "They're in disbelief, shock, angry. They probably need someone to talk to."

MEANWHILE, as operations shifted from rescue to recovery, the government mobilized the sophisticated equipment and vessels needed for a long, treacherous mission in waters that are some 250 feet deep. They also prepared a hangar at Quonset to receive pieces of the doomed aircraft what Hall called a "jigsaw puzzle of 50,000 pieces." Another official said that no reconstruction of the aircraft is planned, at least not at this time.

Although weather in the area where the jet went down has been fair since Sunday, seas were expected to pick up today as rain and possible gale-force wind approaches. And winter is coming in an area of the Atlantic notorious for its vicious northeasters and nautical disasters.

Bill Campbell, a veteran diver and undersea photographer who has been to the bottom near the roughly 40-square-mile search area about 50 miles south of Nantucket, said the environment poses the biggest challenge.

"If there's a strong tide or groundswell," said Campbell, "it can be tough out there."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel Whiting has already arrived in Newport, carrying side scan sonar that will allow it to look for debris on the ocean floor. The Navy vessel Grapple is expected to arrive this morning and load a remote operating vehicle that will allow it to explore possible targets picked by the Whiting, officers said.

Also, the Navy vessel Mohawk is en route - carrying special instruments to allow it to find the "ping" emitted by the jetliner's flight recorder. It, too, is armed with side scan sonar and a submersible vehicle. Searchers have located a signal, most likely from one of the plane's so-called black boxes.

They also recovered one body, its identity so far undisclosed and apparently unknown. The body was taken to Quonset Point yesterday morning by the Coast Guard Cutter Monomoy, an officer said.

Assisted by student sailors from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy who happened to be in the area, crews of Coast Guard ships and aircraft have also recovered debris including what one Coast Guard officer described as a "significant piece" of the aircraft, large enough to require a crane.

They also have found evacuation slides, life preservers and shoes, purses, and teddy bears.

"It basically looked like somebody had emptied their trash Dumpster," said one of the Merchant Academy student sailors, Chris Kincaid.

None of the retrieved debris has any burn marks that might indicate a fire or explosion, said officials, who refused to speculate on the cause.

Authorities stressed there was no evidence of foul play but because terrorism has not been ruled out, the FBI said it is sending bomb experts and other investigators to Newport. Starting early Sunday, FBI agents swarmed over airports in Los Angeles and the New York metropolitan area where the jetliner landed and took off on what was intended to be a long journey from Cairo to the United States and back.

"Nothing has been ruled in, nothing has been ruled out," President Clinton said in Oslo, Norway, where he was attending Middle East peace talks.

Among the passengers on Flight 990 which went down without any indication of trouble from the pilots were about 30 Egyptian military officers who had been training in the United States, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said.

The passengers also included several Egyptians and Canadians, and 106 Americans including 54 people bound for a two-week trip to Egypt and the Nile. None apparently was from Rhode Island, but at least five lived in Connecticut. A couple who split their time between homes in Vermont and Maine also died.

RHODE ISLAND is enveloped in this emerging drama by virtue of its proximity to the crash site, and the existence of large air and sea bases on both sides of deepwater Narragansett Bay capable of supporting such a massive operation. The early search was run from Coast Guard headquarters in Boston and a station on Cape Cod.

Initially, the Coast Guard looked for survivors regardless of how remote that possibility seemed, especially in light of how precipitously the jetliner left the sky. Radar showed that the aircraft dropped more than two miles in just over half a minute a descent one aviation expert described as falling "like a rock."

Any lingering hope that anyone could have lived disappeared early yesterday afternoon when Rear Adm. Richard M. Larrabee, commander of the First Coast Guard District, stepped to the microphones and told reporters in Newport: "We believe at this point it is in everyone's best interest to no longer expect to find survivors."

Larrabee confirmed the recovery of one body, and said Coast Guard searchers "have begun to see evidence of further human remains," but he declined to elaborate.

"Our frustration is we would have liked to find people who survived," said Larrabee. "I can't express our feelings more strongly."

NOT FOUR HOURS after Larrabee spoke, NTSB chief Hall convened a second news conference at the Navy base in Newport.

By then, the media throng was reminiscent of three other air tragedies in recent years in the region: the downing of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, N.Y., in July 1996; the loss of Swissair Flight 111 off Nova Scotia in September 1998; and the crash of the small plane carrying John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and her sister off Martha's Vineyard this past July.

Support staff at the Newport base said they've added 140 phone lines for journalists and 39 television cameras greeted speakers at the second news conference. Every major American newspaper and network was represented, along with journalists from Spain, France, Canada and Japan and untold others certain to arrive overnight and today.

In his remarks, Hall introduced some of the 500 to 1,000 NTSB, Navy, NOAA, FBI and Coast Guard personnel who eventually will be in Rhode Island or working with those who are.

"The primary purpose that I came to Rhode Island today was to ask Governor Almond if his state would open their communities to the families of this terrible tragedy," Hall said. "The governor and I discussed the arrival of family members from Egypt and around the world who will appear in Rhode Island tomorrow."

Almond said Hall called him Sunday and told him Rhode Island would be at the center of the investigation.

Barry Mawn, a special agent for the FBI, asked local people to keep their eyes open for possible debris. "If any washed up on shore, citizens are asked to call local police," he said.

A spokesman for Seattle-based Boeing who arrived just before the news conference, John Derr, said Boeing has an air safety investigator here who will work with the NTSB.

Peter Goeltz, a managing director of the NTSB, said the Family Assistance Center at the Newport Islander Doubletree Hotel will be staffed by professionals from EgyptAir, the Red Cross and NTSB, and they will provide family briefings twice a day. Reporters were not permitted inside the Doubletree.

"We'll also work with the Rhode Island medical examiner on the difficult process of identifying victims," Goeltz said.

Hall said he thought it would take 36 to 48 hours to get equipment to the scene that can pinpoint pinging from the jetliner's flight recorder. Noting that the water is twice as deep as that in which the TWA Flight 800 was recovered three years ago, he said: "This will be a long investigation."

Lead NTSB investigator Gregory Phillips said he is prepared for a probe that could stretch out over "the next coming months and maybe even years."

Added Coast Guard Capt. Russell Webster: "It will be our job to safely and compassionately recover human remains and wreckage."

And judging by the response to a solicitation for help, the state's hospitality industry seemingly has decided its job is to house grieving relatives and friends. "A lot of people, good people, are calling for the right reasons," Robert Rosenberg, president of the Newport County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said in an interview.

Touro Synagogue offered the nation's first synagogue as a place for prayer and nondenominational services, while Middletown's Norman Bird Sanctuary offered its nature trails to people needing quiet solitude.

With staff reports from Peter B. Lord, Gerald M. Carbone, Maria Miro Johnson, Farnaz Fassihi, Robert L. Smith, Karen Lee Ziner, Jody McPhillips and Elizabeth Schaefer, and the Associated Press.

EgyptAir Flight 990 - 'We will never know the truth' - In Cairo, suspicion clouds view of crash
Publication Date: December 5, 1999  Page: A-01  Section: News  Edition: All  

CAIRO, Egypt - Under the curved archway of a narrow alley, a peddler wearing a long gray Arabic gown pushes a cart of fresh vegetables through the crowd, two young boys chase away a yellow stray cat and a female shopper haggles loudly over a pound of dates.

Inside a traditional teahouse nearby, the aroma of burning incense and tobacco from the glass water pipes, together with the smell of rich Eastern tea and Turkish coffee, create the illusion of timelessness.

Here, shadows of past glories from an ancient civilization meet the present realities of a developing country.

Three men take puffs on the long stem of their water pipes, which emit a ring of smoke into the misty air.

The hypnotic effect of the apple-scented smoke is disrupted when the conversation shifts to the worst tragedy this nation has seen in recent years.

Talk of the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 triggers an eruption of emotional reactions.

"Why is there no news this week?" asks Mahdouh Fahmy, 41, setting aside his water pipe. The phrase "In the name of God" is inscribed in bold pink Arabic letters on the wall behind him.

"They are hiding something and now they will tell us a new lie," he said, wagging a finger in the air as he leaned forward to emphasize his point.

"We all know it's terrorist against Egypt - Khalass (the end)," continues Abdullah Hassan,67, "Why listen to more news? Thirty-three of the best military people trained in the United States were killed at once. Does America think we are stupid and illiterate?" he said, his voice rising with every word.

Hassan points to a copy of an Arabic daily newspaper that is spread atop a cracked metal table nearby to indicate that he is updated with the current events.

The men, on a midday tea and shisheh (water pipe) break from their jobs, engage in a heated debate.

"Suicide? An Egyptian pilot, a Muslim doing suicide? Not in one million years," Hassan says.

At the sandwich stand next door, a mother and three daughters wait in line for a quick lunch of falafels.

"We have reached our conclusion that this is a terrorist act and we will never, ever know the truth," said Wafa Anwar, 40, the mother.

IT'S BEEN MORE than a month since Egyptair Flight 990, en route to Cairo, plunged into the Atlantic 60 miles off the coast of Nantucket killing all 217 aboard.

Among the passengers were 33 Egyptian military officers who were returning from training seminars in the United States.

In the first days after the crash, Rhode Island was at center stage, hosting both the investigation and the families and friends of victims. Since then, news of the crash has slipped off the front pages in the United States.

But in Egypt, it's still a prime topic of conversation, amid theories of international conspiracy.

To most Egyptians, the riddle of Flight 990 has a simple answer: The United States has the technology and experience to investigate mechanical problems. When the National Transportation Safety Board announced the crash was not a result of aircraft failure, especially one that would involve EgyptAir, the news was readily accepted.

On the other hand, when the foreign media started reporting speculation of suicide on the part of the Muslim pilot, the reaction was that Americans lack the understanding required for interpreting Arabic words in their cultural context.

Add to this a history of resentment against the West for stereotyping Arabs and Muslims, the tendency toward creating conspiracy in the absence of facts and the pride that stems from being a part of an ancient civilization.

The result poses one question for the majority of Egyptians: What else could have caused EgyptAir Flight 990 to plunge into the Atlantic but an act of terrorism against their nation?

"We can't look into much rationality. This is the Egyptian's gut reaction that stems from culture, history and psychology," said Barbara Ibrahim, an American resident of Cairo for 30 years who holds a doctorate in sociology.

In this region of the world, intrigue is ingrained in the interactions of daily life. If a guest refuses an offer of a cup of tea, a second and third offering will follow, because the host believes that true intentions are never revealed upon the first account.

In a broader sense, to the eyes of an average Egyptian, nothing is what it appears to be, from the run-down shabby buildings that house marble-floored luxury apartments, furnished with French velvet and gold furniture, to the political scene of the country and the region.

For the masses, the 1952 revolution, which overthrew the monarchy of King Farouk and resulted in the creation of the Republic of Egypt, did not deliver its early promise of economic prosperity and international recognition.

Today, with a population of 62 million and a growth rate of 1.2 million people a year, the unemployment rate is approaching 30 percent, according to the CIA world fact book.

Fifty-five percent of Egyptians are rural residents and 66 percent are illiterate, according to the country's 1996 census data.

"As with every revolution, the middle class has disappeared, the rich got richer and the poor, poorer," said Maher Asal, a 49-year-old American-trained architect, lounging in the exclusive Gezira Country Club.

Economic frustrations and a lack of aspiration for the majority have resulted in what experts call "heightened religiosity" in the country.

"These people are the margins of society. Modernization and development has left them aside," explained Enid Hill, chairwoman of the political science department at the American University of Cairo."You can't live with this kind of alienation and the Islamic movement incorporates them into an alternative form of community. Then their life means something."

THE STRONG FAITH and Islamic values observed by Egyptians was yet another reason to denounce with such rigorous intensity the suggestion that a Muslim Egyptian of the highest clan, a pilot, could commit suicide.

A Muslim is prohibited by the Koran from taking his own life; suicide is considered a sin and, culturally, a disgrace.

In a society where most people invest more heavily in social relations than individual success, any act that would bestow public shame on a person and the honor of the family name is regarded as the worst affront one can suffer.

"There is not anger against humanity and society here that you see in the West, where someone randomly walks into a McDonald's and [shoots] children and then kills himself. These things just do not happen here," said Nadine Boctor, 42, who recently moved back to Cairo from a decade of living in Canada.

Egypt receives $1.2 billion annually - equal to 10 percent of its gross national product - in economic and military aid from the United States, making it the second-largest recipient of foreign aid after Israel.

In return, Egypt is considered the number-one ally of the United States in the Arab world and a key player in the Middle East peace process.

The course of politics in the region has led Egyptians of all political persuasions to believe that their country and all Third-World countries are manipulated and exploited for purposes that may be secret at the time but become apparent later.

Among examples Egyptians cite are the Iran-Contra scandal and the Arab-Israel peace process, in which the Arabs feel that the terms of negotiations often favor Israel.

On the flip side of feeling powerless about their political fate, Egyptians place much more emphasis on the importance of Middle East affairs in American foreign policy than is the case in reality. This leads to a public opinion that the West is never without an agenda in its dealings with the region.

"There is no real understanding of their true place in the emerging global world order where the Arabs are mostly marginalized" explained Ibrahim.

These perceptions, whether true or false, are heartfelt and create a foundation for conspiracy theories involving the United States and Israel, in the absence of factual information.

THE STORY of Egyptair has a familiar ring to the ears of Cairo residents. They compare the mystery of the crash to the deaths of princess Diana and her Egyptian boyfriend, Dodi Al-Fayad, in a car crash in a Paris tunnel in 1997.

"Everyone was convinced that the British monarchy killed them," said Yasmine El Rashidi, an American-trained journalist for Al Ahram, an English-language weekly newspaper. "We have an obsession with conspiracy. Every disaster they can't find answers for is a result of outside meddling and conspiracy."

Reports in the Western media, based on leaks from officials in Washington suggesting that the copilot of Flight 990, Gamil al-Batouty, had brought down the plane in an act of suicide because he was heard uttering an Arabic prayer, only heightened the paranoia in this country.

"These leaks were an attempt to compromise the whole overall process of the investigation," said Nabil Osman, the chairman of the State Information Service, and the official spokesman for the Egyptian government. "These leaks were erroneous in content and in intent both and this led to a reaction.

"Now as it stands, the idea of suicide is completely out of the window, there is no trace of it whatsoever, this is ridiculous," Osman said emotionally.

"They are looking into mechanics and whether it is mechanical due to bad manufacturing or mechanical due to human fault," said Osman.

IN THE CROWDED streets of Cairo, a city of 18 million people, traffic is at a standstill regularly and the honking of horns sings a background melody in the warm desert climate.

At the corner of every other block on Corniche Road, which stretches along the Nile River and cuts through the buzzing downtown area, a blue and white square sign hangs from metal light poles.

The sign depicts a white falcon on a sky blue background. Above it reads, "Mesr al-Tayaran," or EgyptAir.

In the United States, an airline logo represents a private business, perhaps evoking thoughts of what the best deal of the week may be. In Egypt, where the government owns the airline, the falcon is a reminder of national glory and pride.

The falcon, which was kept in palaces by the sultans of the East, symbolizes power and superiority in this region. It's regarded as a strong bird that can endure the hardships of a desert life.

Naturally, pilots who are entrusted with the country's glorious bird of the modern era, the aircraft, are equally looked upon as men of honor.

"We are the elite in Cairo. To attack one of us is like attacking national pride, we are government employees of the highest rank," said Walid Morad, the chairman of the Egyptian Pilots Association and an EgyptAir pilot, in his luxury apartment in an upscale suburb of Cairo.

Egyptair often recruits its pilots from the air force, said Morad, adding that each candidate's personal, criminal and physical background is thoroughly researched to ensure perfection.

Morad and his wife and two children, who attend private American schools and are chauffeured around, speak flawless English. They have traveled to most countries in the world and comment on art and culture in New York City, which is a favorite spot.

Morad's wife asks the live-in maid to prepare tea and flips through the TV satellite channels for an entertaining show. Their 8-year old son and 11-year-old daughter go off to play computer games. The phone rings and husband and wife both reach for their cellular phones.

A similar scene takes place at the apartment of Walid al-Batouty, the nephew of the accused copilot. Walid, who went to high school in the United States, dismisses the possibility of his uncle being associated with an Islamic extremist group that may have taken the plane down in an act of martyrdom.

"I think my uncle's mission was to break the American stereotyping of Arabs; you think we are still on camels, that we are either terrorists or secularists. That to have a balanced, modern Arab Muslim is not possible," Walid adds.

At one o'clock in the afternoon on a weekday, Walid, who is an Egyptologist, has not left home for work yet. The morning was spent surfing the Internet, defending his uncle on the phone to foreign journalists and taking care of other personal matters. Engulfed in the relaxed pace that governs Egypt when it comes to punctuality, he is in no particular rush either.

Arriving late for appointments, canceling events on the spur of the moment and taking one's time to deliver a task are allcommon.

The Western obsession to find clear and definite reasons for everything in supersonic time by using the latest technology, is absent from the Egyptian mentality.

Here, the answer to every question has only one answer: "Insha-allah," or simply, "God willingly."

"Americans have this illusion that they can conquer and control everything, while the Egyptians believe God has a plan that they don't understand, which often leads to a sense of resignation in the face of a tragedy," said Ibrahim, the American sociologist in Egypt.

IN RETROSPECT, suggestions that in a matter of less than a week, the United States could come up with explanations for such a complicated mystery as a plane crash, especially explanations that blamed an Egyptian, are incomprehensible.

The majority of the victim's families interviewed in Cairo said they have shut off the flow of information regarding the crash to grieve in private with the support of other family members.

The only source of official information comes through a hot line established by Egyptair for the families, but victims' relatives do not aggressively pursue even that channel.

Since victims' families returned from their vigil in Newport, only one conference call has been scheduled that put families in Egypt in direct contact with NTSB officials, according to Shahra Khali, who lost her uncle, Madgy Geish, 50, in the crash.

"My uncle's wife and two children have completely stopped listening to any news about the crash," said Khali.

"What difference does it make," she asked. "At the end they will find some political explanation that won't be the truth. Do we know to this day who killed JFK? This is the same. They seek comfort in God."

* * *


The Smit Pioneer, a civilian salvage ship chartered by the Navy, is expected to arrive at Quonset Point this week from Lisbon to help with the search for human remains and wreckage from EgyptAir Flight 990.

The recovery operation, scheduled to start within the next couple of weeks, will be conducted by the FBI and National Transportation Safety Board.

The FBI and NTSB are working closely in the investigation of the crash. Last Wednesday, FBI Director Louis Freeh said the only practical difference in a change of leadership would be in the release of information.

The NTSB has a statutory mandate to release information that is relevant to safety, whereas in a criminal context, the FBI would keep the information confidential.

A team of American investigators from the FBI, NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration left Egypt on Nov. 26 after a week-long probe into the aircraft records and personnel records of EgyptAir.


* * *

TALK OF THE CITY: In Egypt's cafes, such as this one in downtown Cairo, where a man smokes a water pipe last month, the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 remains a prime topic of conversation. Below, Egyptians wait for transport on the banks of the Nile.


AP photo / AMR NABIL

Journal photo / FARNAZ FASSIHI

STREET SCENE: Fatima Ibrahim and her daughter, Heba Wahid, sell vegetables Thursday in a Cairo street market. Egypt has a population of 62 million people, more than half of whom live in rural areas. The unemployment rate is approaching 30 percent.

OFFICIAL VIEW: Nabil Osman, chairman of the State Information Service, says speculation that the copilot brought down the plane in an act of suicide is ridiculous.

Journal photo / FARNAZ FASSIHI


FAMILY PORTRAITS: A photograph of EgyptAir Flight 990's copilot, Capt. Gamil al-Batouty, is displayed last month at the family house in Cairo. At right, Wafa Anwar, with her daughters, Dina, left, and Rania, in Cairo Thursday, says she believes the plane was downed by a terrorist attack.

Journal photo / FARNAZ FASSIHI