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Tragedy at sea
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 08 - 01 - 2004

What made Flight FSH604 plunge into the Red Sea? Amira Ibrahim explores the possibilities with the investigation and rescue team in Sharm El-Sheikh
One of the "black boxes" containing the flight data for the Boeing 737 which plunged into the Red Sea last Saturday -- killing all 148 people on board -- was located on Tuesday, but investigators said it was submerged too deep into the sea to be immediately retrieved.
According to investigators, more equipment was needed to retrieve the box, which was believed to be 600-800 metres below the surface.
Hopes are being pinned on the black box providing clues as to why the flight -- operated by the private Egyptian Flash airlines -- went down just a few minutes after taking off from Sharm El-Sheikh on its way to Cairo and then Paris.
133 French passengers, one Moroccan and one Japanese passenger, and 13 Egyptian crew members perished in the accident, which officials were quick to blame on a "technical failure". Investigations, along with an intense recovery operation aimed at retrieving debris from the plane and human remains, have been ongoing since Saturday.
Officials at Sharm El-Sheikh airport said the plane disappeared from the radar screens around 02:44 GMT on Saturday. "The control towers at the Cairo and Sharm El-Sheikh airports received no distress signals from the pilot before the crash," said General Yousri Gamaleddin, deputy director at Sharm El-Sheikh airport. He added that radar readings showed that the doomed charter flight climbed to 5,000 feet and made a planned left turn before engaging in an unusual manoeuvre and plunging into the sea.
Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafiq was quick to rule out the possibility that terrorism had anything to do with the crash. An anonymous caller claiming to represent a Yemen-based group called Ansar Al- Haq (Followers of Truth) told an international news agency that the group had downed the plane, and would also attack Air France planes unless the French government dropped plans to ban Islamic veils.
France said it attached little credence to the claim. "On the basis of the information in my position, the claim is not very credible," said French Justice Minister Dominique Perben. Shafiq said it was a "silly joke".
French Deputy Foreign Minister Renauld Muselier, who arrived in Sharm El- Sheikh just a few hours after the accident, also dismissed the possibility that this was a terrorist act. "I have seen the human remains and there are no burn marks, so there were no apparent explosions, and it is undisputed that eyewitnesses saw no explosion," he said. Thus, "there are no grounds to think it was an attack." Muselier also called on the media to respect the feelings of the victims' families.
The focus, instead, was on the airline's maintenance and safety record. While Switzerland said it had banned the Cairo-based company from its airspace after finding serious shortcomings in one of its planes during a 2002 spot check, Shafiq defended the Flash's safety record. "These accusations are totally inaccurate. The Swiss authorities had informed us of a ground inspection of the Flash airlines aircraft on 11 October 2002, but the report given to us did not contain any information on a ban on flights over Swiss territory," the Egyptian aviation minister said. The Zurich airport inspection, he said, resulted in "simple remarks" involving the plane missing things like fog goggles for pilots, and necessary measures were taken before it was given the all-clear to take off again.
"The Swiss authorities allowed the plane to take off to Cairo on 11 October, the same day, with 145 passengers on board. They also permitted a Flash plane to land at Zurich airport with 148 passengers on board on 24 October 2002, and to take off again with Swiss nationals on board. If they banned the company's planes, why did they allow them to take off the first time and to land once again?" Shafiq asked. He described the Swiss statements as lacking in proof.
Declaring the inspection results confidential, Swiss Civil Aviation Authority Spokeswoman Celestine Perissinotto said on Sunday that the aircraft was in breach of minimum international standards. Flash Airlines Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Mohamad Nour, on the other hand, said a financial disagreement with a Swiss agency, rather than safety concerns, was the real problem.
Founded seven years ago by Italian and Egyptian businessmen, Flash airlines had been operating two Boeing 737-300s manufactured in 1993.
French Transport Minister Gilles de Robien said France's own inspections of the doomed plane had revealed "nothing abnormal. As soon as we were informed about this in 2002, I think three checks were carried out at three different French airports. [These] led French civil aviation authorities to consider that the planes should fly," de Robien said. He also said that tests conducted in Poland had come up with similar results.
In 2002, however, a Flash airlines flight from Sharm El-Sheikh to Bologna was forced -- following a technical problem -- to make an emergency landing in Athens. A Rome-Paris flight operated by the company was also reportedly forced to make an emergency landing in Geneva in January 2003.
Flash airlines officials defended their company's safety records. "The doomed plane had a brand new engine installed last March by a Moroccan company," said Flash's chief engineer, Medhat Nassar, at the company's offices in Sharm El-Sheikh. "The company has always proceeded correctly with maintenance work, using a company in Morocco to check the engine and another company in Norway for the rest." The Norwegian company that maintained the doomed aircraft said it was in good shape when it left its workshop following a major overhaul 13 months ago.
For its part, Boeing said the plane had been delivered to Flash airlines in October 1992 and had accumulated 17,973 flight hours. The company also said that it was sending an investigator to Egypt to look into the cause of the crash.
The investigations were being conducted in parallel with attempts to recover bodies and wreckage. For hours after the plane plunged into the Red Sea, Egyptian navy rescue units -- in addition to three C-130 and C-160 aircraft and a frogmen unit -- searched for survivors. Italian navy vessels stationed in the Red Sea also participated.
Debris was found around seven kilometres south of the airport. Later, Shafiq, along with the French deputy foreign minister, French Ambassador Jean- Claude Cousseran, and representatives from the Japanese Embassy in Cairo, sailed to the spot where the plane plunged under the water to place flowers on the water in a solemn mourning ceremony.
Shafiq said the Egyptians invited the French to participate in both the rescue operations and the technical investigations. He emphasised, however, that the Egyptian government was the only body that had the right to conduct the investigations.
The French government sent "a submarine, a frigate and three helicopters", to the site, the minister said. The radar-equipped frigate Tourville arrived from Djibouti on Monday with 16 divers and 49 experts on board. French DNA experts were also being dispatched to the area to help in the gruesome task of identifying 72 bags including body parts recovered from the sea.
Cousseran said that a coordination office was established in Sharm El-Sheikh to follow up with the investigation. "The Ministry of Justice and Civil Aviation in France are [also] working to prepare a report with all comments and remarks to send to the Egyptian investigators," he said.
Asked when the search and investigation would be over, Cousseran told Al- Ahram Weekly, "we do not want to rush. There is a lot of work to be done here, and it will not be that easy. We do not expect the mission to be completed before two months at least."
While Egyptian experts believe the plane is 1000 metres under the water, some of the French experts said it could be closer to the surface, and thus reachable with the submarine. French Naval Attaché Commander Xavier de Sontenay said that a robot designed to operate at depths of 400 metres may help to find the plane's fuselage.
Asked where the black boxes -- when retrieved -- would be analysed, Shafiq said Egypt had "very good labs [that were] qualified to carry out the job. The French also have their labs," he said, but the issue would not be "a subject of dispute" between the two nations.
Tragic start to the New Year
As families of the plane crash victims tried to cope, Dena Rashed and Reem Nafie watch a human tragedy unfold in Cairo and Sharm El-Sheikh
Having just seen the close of a year many Egyptians referred to as "unpleasant", the nation awoke to 2004's third day with a horrible tragedy on its hands. The plane crash in Sharm El-Sheikh took place at the height of the Red Sea resort's high season, and right in the midst of the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Before all the details of the accident emerged, anyone who had a family member or friend who was either vacationing in Sharm El-Sheikh at the time, or who worked in the airline industry, scrambled to find out if their loved ones were alright. Many called the airports in both Cairo and Sharm El-Sheikh to make sure that their relatives were not amongst those who had perished. Anhar Rifaat, whose son works as an Egypt Air flight attendant, said her phone was ringing off the hook on Saturday morning "Everyone was asking if my son was alright, even though he does not work for Flash airlines," she said.
Families of the 13 Egyptian crewmembers who were on the doomed flight, meanwhile, rushed to Flash airlines' Cairo headquarters to find out if their relatives were on the flight. Nearly a dozen people stood outside the company doors waiting for a company representative to read out the exact names of the Egyptian victims. Name after name was called out, and the screams and cries got louder as parents and siblings had their worst fears confirmed. Flight attendant Nermeen Nassar's mother cried as she told Al- Ahram Weekly that Nassar had just gotten married to a pilot. Instead of celebrating her wedding, Nassar's mother said, "now she is gone forever".
Hisham El-Kolaybi said he had last seen his cousin, Pilot Ihab El-Sumbati, on New Year's Eve. "I can't believe that he's gone. Ihab is married with two kids. His mother found out the news from the neighbours, and I reassured her that it wasn't true. I don't know what I am going to say to her now," El-Kolaybi said.
El-Sumbati and Nassar were amongst the seven substitute crewmembers that would have been working on the plane had it eventually made the return flight from Paris to Cairo.
Families of the crash's French victims were arriving in Sharm El-Sheikh as the Weekly went to print. A ceremony at sea is scheduled for today. The Egyptian families, meanwhile, had already been through a grueling week of pain.
By Sunday morning, all the Egyptian family members were brought to Sharm El-Sheikh on a private plane provided by the Aviation Ministry. Although the victims' families thought they would be able to identify their relatives' bodies, and provide them with a decent burial and funeral, their hopes were soon shattered.
Arriving at the Sharm El-Sheikh International Hospital, where they thought the bodies had been taken, the families were shocked when hospital officials refused to allow them inside. After much arguing and pleading with officers standing guard at the hospital doors, the relatives were ordered to leave. "No one is allowed inside the hospital," one of the officers told the Weekly. "The bodies inside are incomplete and it would be very agonising for anyone to see them."
Hamdi Sami, who headed the marine search and rescue team that was the first to arrive on the scene, said only parts of the crash victims' bodies were recovered. "We got the rescue call at 5:30 on Saturday morning, and two of our units headed directly to the location of the crash," Sami said. Egyptian naval ships, army helicopters, and a plane soon joined the search and rescue team.
Sami said that once it became clear that no survivors would be found, the search team's main concern was to find the bodies and collect the debris from the plane. "We only found small parts, but no complete bodies," Sami said. "We found a few personal belongings, pieces of the plane's wings, and other parts that were no more than a metre long."
Sami said the debris was scattered around a three-kilometre area, between 500 to 1000 metres under the sea. And it was somewhere in that area, near where the plane plunged into the water, that a brief preliminary ceremony was held on Sunday to bid the dead farewell. Attended by French Deputy Foreign Minister Renaud Muselier, along with Sharm El-Sheikh Governor Mustafa Afifi, and officials from both the Aviation Ministry and the Japanese Embassy, three bouquets wrapped at the stem with French, Egyptian and Japanese flags were slipped into the water. Helicopters flew above as a silent prayer was recited for the dead before the convoy headed back to shore.
The following day, Mrs Suzanne Mubarak also placed a wreath in the water at the site. "I am here to express condolences to all the families of the victims," she told reporters.
Following their arrival on Sunday, the families of the Egyptian victims attended another mournful ceremony that was held at Sharm El-Sheikh's Al-Salam mosque. Salat al-gha'ib, a special prayer for the missing, was followed by an attempt by the mosque's imam (preacher) to comfort the families by reminding them that their relatives were martyrs.
Afterwards, the families headed back to their hotel and prepared to leave Sharm El-Sheikh. In the hotel lobby, relatives were sobbing, holding hands and hugging each other, with those who were better able to control their emotions trying to comfort those who couldn't.
Rabab, a cousin of Flash airlines co- pilot, Amr El-Shafie, told the Weekly that most families were disappointed because they were not told before their arrival in Sharm El-Sheikh that no complete bodies were recovered. "We came to Sharm El- Sheikh expecting to find Amr's body, but we received nothing," she said.
25-year-old El-Shafie's "birthday was on 1 January," Rabab said. "He had met up with most of the family before going on this flight. He loved flying, and always said he would even do it without pay."
Pointing to Amr's fiancé, who was standing nearby, Rabab said, "she is still in shock and can not believe he died; she's only 20."
Flight attendant Samia Rifaat's sister was nearly hysterical. "The company promised to take us to Sharm El- Sheikh to retrieve my sister's body, but now we are returning with nothing," she cried. Rifaat's father said he would be coming back to Sharm El- Sheikh to find out "what happened to the plane", and to his daughter's body.
Nassar's mother said that she had "come for nothing". Holding tightly onto another relative's hand, she explained that her daughter had worked as a flight attendant for six years, but "she had only joined Flash airlines three months ago."
Other Flash crewmembers had accompanied the victims' families to Sharm El-Sheikh. Ihab El-Gohari, who heads the company's flight crews, said he and his colleagues "will be following up with the investigations team to understand what happened".
Jean-Claude Cousseran, the French ambassador to Egypt, told the Weekly that although the French "victims' families have not decided if they will file a case against Flash airlines ... it remains their right" to do so.
Meanwhile, according to tour operator, Khaled Omar, four Russian passengers who were supposed to be on the FSH604 flight that crashed were "saved after their tour leader failed to wake up that morning". He told the Weekly that when the Russian tourists called their relatives at home after hearing the news, their families could hardly believe that they had been miraculously saved.

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