Rush to judgment?

U.S., Egyptian officials try to stop the finger-pointing about the Flight 990 crash.

By Fiona Morgan
Published November 19, 1999 2:00PM (EST)

On Thursday, U.S. officials and the media took a giant step backward from their rush to judgment about the cause of the EgyptAir crash. State Department spokesman James Rubin urged the media not to jump to conclusions -- most notably, Wednesday's widespread reporting that the crash looked like a pilot suicide -- saying Egypt is experiencing a "great trauma" and that "a maximum degree of cooperation and tact" is necessary in the investigation.

In an interview with CNN's "Larry King Live," Nabil Fahmi, Egypt's ambassador to the United States, said, "It does bother me that information has been leaked" about the investigation. He urged consideration for the "pain and suffering" of the families.

"It's also important not to feed into speculation by providing piecemeal information," the ambassador said. "Not all of the information that is out there is correct. And even the information that is out there is not necessarily the full story. We want the truth."

Fahmi also spoke with NBC's "Today" show on Thursday. He said he had listened to the tape of the cockpit voice recorder. When asked if the pilot's statement "sounds like a statement of suicide," he replied, "No, it does not."

The BBC put together profiles of the pilots, including job history with EgyptAir and quotes from family members.

Tensions rose between Egyptians and FBI investigators throughout the day Wednesday as reports of the cockpit voice recorder transcript trickled through the Western media. The new revelations heightened suspicions of a criminal sabotage of EgyptAir Flight 990, though no official confirmation of those suspicions has been given.

While the National Transportation Safety Board is officially mum on the details of the transcript, various media reports on Wednesday quoted sources close to the investigation as saying that investigators now believe a relief pilot named Gamil El Batouti took control of the plane and deliberately plunged it into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 217 people aboard.

The New York Times reported in its Wednesday editions that "a detailed analysis of the voice and data recorders aboard Flight 990 indicates that a crew member, possibly a relief pilot, was responsible" for the crash.

According to the Times, the suspect, a 59-year-old veteran EgyptAir employee, uttered "Tawakilt ala Allah," which is roughly translated as "I put my faith in God" or "I entrust myself to God," before pointing the plane toward the ocean.

The Times said government officials believe the plane's captain, Ahmed al-Habashi, had left the cockpit and struggled in vain upon his return to take back control. The crew member originally believed to have uttered the prayer, Adel Anwar, was on board, but not in the cockpit, officials said.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press revealed more alarming details of the transcript. AP quotes an unnamed federal official as saying that the crew member, whose identity he would not confirm, said, "I made my decision now" just before the autopilot was turned off and the plane began its deadly plunge into the Atlantic.

The new revelations came after Tuesday's confusion and mixed messages from media reports and government agencies. As newspaper headlines screamed that the investigation was being handed over to the FBI, the NTSB delayed plans to turn over leadership of the EgyptAir crash because of concerns by Egyptian government officials that such a move indicated that criminal activity is suspected.

News organizations, including CNN, reported that the Egyptian government is "extremely sensitive" to the decision to label the investigation criminal, according to officials close to the probe.

At a news conference late Tuesday afternoon, NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said that additional Egyptian authorities and experts would join the investigation to "process and analyze" information related to the crash.

Since the crash on Oct. 31, the media has produced a frenzied response to any new piece of information about what could have caused it. Recent interviews with family members of the EgyptAir crew have been dissected and analyzed as if they were snippets from the cockpit voice recorder.

Wednesday morning, Batouti's nephew Walid appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" and defended his uncle. "The man was hanging onto life. He loves life. He is a happy father who had five children." Walid said people were "jumping to conclusions" about what happened in the flight.

Batouti was scheduled to retire from the airline early next year. His 10-year-old daughter, Aya, suffers from an immune disorder called lupus erythematosis and has been treated in the United States.

An interview in Newsday with Batouti's family paints a very different picture of the relief pilot's state of mind from the one that's emerged in much of the American media. Family members showed the reporter two tires that the pilot had bought at Costco in New Jersey and brought home on a previous flight, and explained that he had called home the day before the crash to make sure his son would be at the airport to help him carry two more.

Wednesday, the Arabic newspaper Al Ahram reported that he had wired $300 to his family two days before the crash to pay a phone bill.

"The pain today is worse than the pain on the day he died," Batouti's widow told Newsday, strongly denying that her husband could have been suicidal. Suicide is strictly taboo in Muslim culture.

Under the headline "EgyptAir Probe Focuses on Co-Pilot," the AP ran an interview with Batouti's brother-in-law Essam Dahi that produced a cryptic quote. When asked if Batouti had ever expressed a fear of flying, Dahi said Batouti replied, "We see our deaths every day over the ocean."

Overreaction has marked coverage of this story from the beginning. Rumors of pilot sabotage first began to circulate after the Boston Herald reported last week that a crew member had placed an ominous call to his wife before takeoff, saying there was "something wrong with the plane," and that he was "very worried."

Much of the American media is running with the pilot suicide theory. On Tuesday night, the Drudge Report led with the headline "It looks like murder!" along with a link to the New York Times report.

MSNBC features an alarming sidebar headlined "Few tests for pilot mental fitness."

Meanwhile, in Egypt, different types of conspiracy theories and angry suspicions are circulating about the crash.

The Cairo Times reported Wednesday on conspiracy theories dominating the Egyptian press. "One is that the Americans are covering up for Boeing," the Times wrote. "The other is that the American military shot the plane down, either accidentally or deliberately to get rid of 33 Egyptian air force officers." The Times also paraphrased the "Islamist-oriented" paper Al Shaab's accusation that American recovery teams had retrieved the black boxes days after the crash, reprogrammed them, then thrown them back into the water.

The South China Morning Post reported Monday that EgyptAir officials are angry that the investigation has focused on the pilots' mental health, and that they believe the black-box data "points to sabotage." The report quotes Essam Ahmed, former head of EgyptAir's committee in charge of investigating crashes, as saying that the pilots were trained to glide an aircraft down if the engines stopped. Ahmed suggested the possibility that a bomb was planted in the toilet behind the cockpit, a scenario that the U.S. investigation has not ruled out.

The Middle East Times reports that the editor in chief of "conspiracy-minded" official Egyptian newspaper Al Gomhuriya published an editorial Nov. 6 accusing the U.S. military of bringing down the plane with missiles.

Through it all, the NTSB is trying not to add more fodder for speculation. When asked by a reporter to elaborate on the contents of the cockpit voice recorder widely reported by the media Tuesday, Hall said, "We have not chosen to characterize it because there are still some differences in some of the cultural interpretations of the Arabic language that's spoken on the cockpit voice recorder.

"We're working to try to determine exactly the words that were spoken. We are prepared to continue with that process ... with additional resources and individuals from the Egyptian government in the United States in the next couple of days to assist with that effort," Hall said.

U.S.-Egypt cooperation may be necessary, but it could also slow down the investigation.

A team of experts continues to review the tapes at an NTSB lab in Washington to determine the relationship between mechanical events and the information on the cockpit voice recorder. Hall would not comment on the expected time line for completion of the analysis, but he remained optimistic that it would yield answers.

Language experts are also cautiously translating the contents of the cockpit tape, which are in Arabic, to determine whether or not the pilot's quote was a prayer, as is alleged.

The investigation team also includes representatives from Egypt, the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing and the engine manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney.

The agency has refused to release transcripts -- in Arabic or English -- of the cockpit voice recorder to the media.

Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Air Travel Egyptian Protests Fbi Middle East Plane Crashes