CAIRO (CBSNewYork/AP) — A multinational recovery mission was under way after an EgyptAir jetliner en route from Paris to Cairo with 66 people aboard crashed in the Mediterranean Sea, authorities said.
The plane swerved wildly in flight before going down early Thursday. Investigators and officials in Egypt and Russia believe the incident was likely the result of a terrorist attack, but the black box must still be found.
There were no immediate signs of survivors.
EgyptAir Flight 804, an Airbus A320 with 56 passengers and 10 crew members, went down about halfway between the Greek island of Crete and Egypt’s coastline, or about 175 miles offshore, after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle Airport, authorities said.
Egypt’s Civil Aviation ministry also said in a statement that “floating material,” including life jackets and plastic items, have been found in the sea close to the suspected crash site. A senior Greek air safety official, however, said the debris found so far in the Mediterranean Sea does not belong to an aircraft.
Athanassios Binis, head of Greece’s Air Accident Investigation and Aviation Safety Board, told state ERT TV that “an assessment of the finds showed that they do not belong to an aircraft.” He said this has been confirmed by Egyptian authorities.
Egyptian military aircraft and ships have been searching for debris and victims from the plane, whose passengers included two babies and a child. The passengers spanned 12 nationalities, but none were American.
Greek, French and British authorities also joined the operation.
EgyptAir Flight 804 was carrying 66 people from Paris to Cairo when it disappeared early Thursday morning.
It was lost from radar at 2:45 a.m. local time when it was flying at 37,000 feet, the airline said.
CBS2’s Hazel Sanchez reported, that as the plane entered Egyptian airspace, it made a 90-degree left turn, then a full 360-degree turn toward the right, while dropping more than 20,000 feet.
Greece’s defense minister says the plane spun all the way around and suddenly lost altitude just before vanishing from radar screens. The pilot did not respond to their calls and the aircraft then vanished from radars.
“We’ll know even more after the digital flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder are found and analyzed, but it might suggest a possible loss of control in flight,” CBS News aviation and safety expert Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger told “CBS This Morning.”
A U.S. intelligence source told CBS News “that the aircraft fell like a rock” after suffering a catastrophic event that took down the plane. The source indicated that U.S. officials did not detect an explosion and that there have been no claims of responsibility from terror groups, but that it is early and the lack of communication is not unusual.
The source added that investigators do not know if the crash was caused by a deliberate act, such as a bomb, or by mechanical failure.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee said there are conflicting reports about the conduct of the EgyptAir plane during its last minutes of flight, and there is nothing yet to confirm whether terrorism, structural failure or something else is the cause.
“We are looking through our intelligence collections to figure out if we have any images. Do we have any signals intelligence that reveals a discussion of a plot like this?” the representative from California said.
He added, “We’re working with the French to try to figure out is there any information we have that could shed light on any of the passengers, but there’s nothing yet to confirm the cause of the plane crash.”
Schiff said the plane did seem to have broken apart in midair but the reason was unclear.
The FBI offered its assistance in the investigation. FBI Director James Comey said the bureau has no evidence yet that the plane was brought down intentionally.
In Cairo, Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathi cautioned that the disaster is still under investigation. But he said the possibility it was a terror attack “is higher than the possibility of having a technical failure.”
“If you analyze the situation properly, the possibility of having a different action or having a terror attack is higher than a possibility of having a technical,” he said.
Alexander Bortnikov, chief of Russia’s top domestic security agency, went further, saying: “In all likelihood it was a terror attack.”
French President Francois Hollande said no hypothesis is ruled out or preferred, including an accident or a terrorist act.
“When we have the truth we need to draw all the conclusions,” he said, adding “At this stage, we must give priority to solidarity toward the families” of the victims.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement Thursday evening that “we do not yet know definitely what caused the disappearance of Flight 804.”
Earlier Thursday, Earnest said nothing has been ruled in or out and said the U.S. is ready to help with the investigation. The U.S. Navy is also working to deploy a P-3 Orion aircraft in the search, he said.
Security expert Manny Gomez told CBS2’s Dave Carlin that the altitude and how quickly the crash occurred has pushed a bombing scenario to the forefront.
“A plane that has a faulty landing gear or some kind of mechanical problem usually doesn’t act the way this plane acted,” Gomez said. “The way it swirled, the way it went down and descended so quickly in a matter of three minutes, this is not characteristic of a plane that is simply malfunctioning but more of a characteristic of something that exploded inside the plane.”
In the past day, the plane had flown to Eritrea, to Tunisia and then to Paris. An explosive device on a timer could have been loaded anywhere.
Former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker said everyone with access to that plane in the various airports will be questioned, “whether it was the cleaning crew, whether it was the catering crew, whether it was the refueling crew, or whether it was the baggage crew.”
Gomez added the U.S. needs to be wary of Egyptian aircraft coming in from other countries.
“Now we have to be careful, obviously, of Egyptian aircraft coming from other countries. God forbid one of these aircraft is coming here, landing in New York City, and this happening,” Gomez said. “It would be a major catastrophe for the city if it happened in our airspace.”
Those on board, according to EgyptAir, included 15 French passengers, 30 Egyptians, two Iraqis, one Briton, one Kuwaiti, one Saudi, one Sudanese, one Chadian, one Portuguese, one Belgian, one Algerian and one Canadian.
Relatives of passengers on the missing plane rushed to Cairo airport moments after EgyptAir officials made the revelation on Twitter. Authorities have also set up a special crisis center at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport for families of passengers of the missing plane.
EgyptAir had three security agents on the flight and all of the passengers were screened for links to terror before they boarded in Paris, CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported.
Sources said there were no red flags and intelligence officers will now dig deeper into their backgrounds, Aiello reported.
Tarek Rizk, an Egyptian-American living in New York City, is hoping the crash isn’t the result of a terrorist act.
“What really my hope would be not as terrorist act, because this can hurt the stability of the country and also going to hurt the tourism industry,” Rizk said. “Plus, EgyptAir itself is a big industry in Egypt and that’s gonna ruin all these three subjects that are very important to us.”
This isn’t the first time EgyptAir has made headlines.
An EgyptAir plane was hijacked and diverted to Cyprus in March. A man who admitted to the hijacking and is described by Cypriot authorities as “psychologically unstable” is in custody in Cyprus.
The incident renewed security concerns at Egyptian airports after a Russian passenger plane crashed in Sinai last October, killing all 224 people on board. Moscow said it was brought down by an explosive device, and a local branch of the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for planting it.
In 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, killing all 217 people aboard, U.S. investigators filed a final report that concluded its co-pilot switched off the autopilot and pointed the Boeing 767 downward. But Egyptian officials rejected the notion of suicide altogether, insisting some mechanical reason caused the crash.
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