CAIRO — An Egyptian jetliner carrying 66 people from Paris to Cairo abruptly swerved, vanished from radar and plunged into the Mediterranean early Thursday, shortly before it was scheduled to land. Egyptian officials said wreckage had been found and suggested terrorism was a more likely cause than technical failure.
The loss of the flight, EgyptAir 804, was the second civilian aviation disaster for Egypt in the past year. It immediately resurrected fears and speculation about the safety and security of Egyptian air travel and broader questions about terrorism against civilian air travel.
Egypt and Greece mounted an intense search-and-rescue operation in the southern Aegean Sea, and, on Thursday afternoon, the Greek authorities said debris believed to be from the wreckage had been found at a site around 205 nautical miles southeast of Crete and 190 nautical miles south of the Greek island of Karpathos. EgyptAir confirmed the discovery of wreckage a few hours later in a Twitter posting.
The Egyptian civil aviation minister, Sherif Fathi, told a news conference in Cairo that it was premature to draw conclusions about the cause of the crash, but he quickly acknowledged that it might be terrorism.
“I don’t want to go to speculations and I don’t want to go to assumptions,” Mr. Fathi said. Still, he said, “if you analyze the situation properly,” the possibility of “having a terror attack is higher than the possibility” of technical failure.
The jetliner, an Airbus A320, departed Paris at 11:09 p.m. on Wednesday. The pilot spoke to Greek air traffic controllers at 2:26 a.m. and nothing seemed out of the ordinary, officials said. Three or four minutes later, the plane made its last normal radar contact.
At 2:37 a.m., shortly after entering Egyptian airspace, the plane made a 90-degree turn to the left and then a full circle to the right, first plunging to 15,000 feet from 37,000 feet and then to 9,000 feet. At that point it disappeared from radar, the Greek defense minister, Panos Kammenos, said at a news conference on Thursday afternoon.
Continue reading the main story
Flight 804 was carrying 56 passengers, including three children; seven crew members; and three members of airline security personnel. A list of the passengers’ nationalities, released by the airline, said that 30 were from Egypt, 15 from France, two from Iraq and one each from Algeria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Chad, Kuwait, Portugal, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
The twin-engine aircraft, which can accommodate up to 220 passengers, was delivered to EgyptAir in November 2003 and had accumulated 48,000 hours of flying time, according to data compiled by Flightradar24, an aviation website. Such aircraft are typically built to last 30 or 40 years, and there was no indication anything was mechanically amiss.
But the aircraft’s North Africa itinerary in the past two days was possibly more worrisome. Flightradar24 data showed it had flown round trips between Cairo and Asmara, Eritrea, and between Cairo and Tunis before flying to Paris. American and European officials have expressed concerns about security gaps in North African airports.
Intelligence analysts who monitor jihadist websites and social media said there had been no claims of responsibility by terrorist groups.
Officials in Egypt, who have been under intense scrutiny since a bomb brought down a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in October, killing all 224 people on board, declined to describe the events on Wednesday as a crash. The aviation minister’s quick acknowledgment that terrorism might be a cause this time was in stark contrast to the government’s handling of the loss of the Russian airliner.
The French president, François Hollande, after speaking by telephone with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, also raised the possibility of terrorism. “The information that we have been able to gather — the prime minister, the members of the government, and, of course, the Egyptian authorities — unfortunately confirm for us that this plane crashed at sea and has been lost,” Mr. Hollande said at the Élysée Palace.
Where the EgyptAir Flight Crashed
EgyptAir Flight 804, en route from Paris to Cairo, disappeared from radar over the Mediterranean Sea on Thursday morning after it abruptly turned and dropped in altitude.
Mr. Hollande said that “no hypothesis was being ruled out,” and that the three countries were hoping to recover “debris that would enable us to know the truth.” France has tightened airport security after a series of terrorist attacks last year.
He added, “When we have the truth, we must draw all the conclusions, whether it is an accident or another hypothesis, which everybody has in mind: the terrorist hypothesis.”
President Obama was briefed on the situation by Lisa O. Monaco, his adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism. “The president asked to be updated throughout the day as the situation warrants, and directed administration officials to reach out to their international counterparts to offer support and assistance,” the White House said in a statement.
American officials said that they were sharing information from a terrorist watch list as well as other data with Egyptian, French and other investigators, but that there was no evidence so far of what had caused the plane to vanish.
EgyptAir said the last radar contact with the plane had been at 2:30 a.m., when it was 175 miles off the Egyptian coast. (Greek officials put the last radar contact at a minute earlier.)
At 3:14 a.m., the Greek authorities began a search operation, deploying a C-130 military transport plane. At 4:26 a.m. — nearly two hours after the last radar contact — the plane emitted a signal, although it was not clear whether that was an emergency distress signal sent by a crew member or an automated signal from the plane’s onboard computers.
“We don’t know if the pilot had something to do with this or if it is just the plane sending it,” said Ihab Raslan, a spokesman for the Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry.
Greece said it had sent two planes, including the C-130, along with the naval frigate Nikiforos Fokas and two Super Puma rescue helicopters to an area around Karpathos, in the southern Aegean Sea.
At the airport in Cairo, relatives and friends waiting for the passengers were shepherded into a separate area, many of them red-faced and crying. Aviation security officials barred journalists from filming and interviewing people, saying they were acting on orders from the Interior Ministry, which controls the police.
In a flurry of posts on Twitter on Thursday, EgyptAir emphasized the experience of the crew of the missing airliner. The pilot had more than 6,000 flying hours, and the co-pilot had 2,700 hours, the airline said.
Speaking on the French radio station RTL, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that the French authorities were still gathering information about the disappearance and that, “at this stage, no hypotheses on the causes of this disappearance can be ruled out.”
In the October crash of the Russian jetliner, the plane broke up in midair 23 minutes after takeoff from the Red Sea resort city of Sharm el Sheikh. The Islamic State, whose local affiliate is fighting the Egyptian military in the Sinai Peninsula, claimed that it had brought down the plane, an Airbus A321-200.
Egypt initially denied that the crash was connected to terrorism. But in February, Mr. Sisi said that the flight had been brought down by terrorists, although he did not specify which group.
The crash dealt a crippling blow to Egypt’s beleaguered tourism industry, which had already declined sharply in recent years. It also helped precipitate a decline in the value of the Egyptian currency in recent months.
Russia and Britain have suspended flights to Sharm el Sheikh since the crash. The Egyptian investigation has yet to officially identify the cause. But President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Mr. Sisi discussed the resumption of flights in a telephone call on May 10, according to a statement from the Kremlin.
The last major crash involving an EgyptAir plane occurred in 2002, when a Boeing 737 traveling to Tunis from Cairo crashed into a hill near the Tunis airport, killing 18 of the 62 people on board.
In March, a hijacker wearing a fake explosives vest diverted an EgyptAir domestic flight to Cyprus, where an hourslong standoff resulted in his arrest and no injuries to passengers. The Cypriot authorities later described the man, Seif Eldin Mustafa, who said he wanted to free female prisoners from Egyptian jails, as “psychologically disturbed.” He is currently battling extradition to Egypt.
Security at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris was tightened after the terrorist attacks in and around the French capital in November, and scrutiny of passengers and luggage was also stepped up in the wake of the bombing of Brussels Airport in March.
After the November attacks, the French authorities have used the threat of terrorism to justify raids of employee lockers at Charles de Gaulle, as well as a systematic review of the roughly 87,000 airport employees who have badges giving access to secure areas that include the tarmac, baggage handling and cargo storage zones. Those reviews have led the authorities to revoke dozens of badges for security reasons, according to the airport police.
Rules that bar passengers from carrying liquids, gels and aerosols in hand luggage were also extended to apply to airline and airport personnel, as well as anyone with access to secure areas of the airport.
Egypt has come under criticism in the past for its lack of transparency in aviation accidents. In 1999, an EgyptAir flight crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, killing all 217 on board.
Although American investigators concluded that the co-pilot had steered the airplane into the sea, Egypt rejected the idea of suicide and still insists that the crash was caused by an unspecified mechanical failure.