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Still no answers
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 02 - 2001


By Amira Ibrahim
EgyptAir investigators have returned from the United States without making progress in preparing the final report on what caused a Boeing 767 to plunge into the waters of the Atlantic shortly after taking off from New York on 31 October 1999.
But airline officials denied press leaks that the company accepted limited responsibility for the tragedy based on the assertion that it was due to errors on the part of the crew in the minutes preceding the crash of the airliner.
The reports were based on a decision by EgyptAir lawyers in New York last Thursday to accept limited liability for the crash, clearing the way for the families of victims to collect damages.
"The airline agreed to pay damages to families that are eligible to sue in US courts. The company wanted to take care of the families of the victims who were flying on EgyptAir. Thus, we will not contest the compensation lawsuits," lawyers told a federal court in New York.
EgyptAir lawyers, however, made it clear that the company did not accept full blame for the crash which killed all 217 passengers on board.
In Cairo, a source at the airline's Egyptian insurers told Al-Ahram Weekly that the insurance company reserves the right to sue any party proven responsible for the crash, including Boeing and manufacturers of the airliner's components.
"Almost 80 per cent of the victims' families received the insurance payments. We are waiting for the others to collect their money," added the source.
According to American lawyers representing 10 families who filed lawsuits in American courts, there is the potential that compensation awarded by the courts could exceed one million dollars for each victim, in accordance with the recent modification of federal law concerning "death overseas."
"If we cannot agree on the amount of compensation, then they [the families] have to go to court," commented the Egyptian insurance source.
Families of the crew accused the insurance company and EgyptAir of forcing them to accept the payments being offered and waive any further right to compensation.
"It took them 14 months to remember that they should have done something for the families. It seems that they have poor memories," said Injy El-Habashi, the pilot's daughter. "The families who lost their only bread-winners did not receive any help from the company. They told us if you need the money, go sign papers stating that you received all that you are entitled to. Moreover, they made us sign an agreement promising not to take legal action against any parties subsequently proven liable for the crash," El-Habashi said. "And yet, they are ready to pay exorbitant compensation under US law. They should, at the very least, do the same for their own employees, who died while trying to save the plane," she added.
Families of 18 Egyptian victims filed a lawsuit in Cairo to invalidate their waiving the right to further compensation and thereby consider the sums paid only insurance payments, not compensation for liability. Each family received an insurance payment of $120,000.
"We are not willing to sue EgyptAir because we know it is not to blame for the crash and we know exactly what caused it," Walid El-Batouti, the co-pilot's nephew, commented. "Holding the crew responsible is nothing but another American test balloon to see what Egyptians will accept," he commented. "I believe that the American investigators, having reached a dead end, sought a new explanation to replace the suicide scenario, but one that still holds the Egyptian crew responsible," he said.
Shortly after the crash, leaks by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials accused the pilot, and then the co-pilot, of purposely downing the plane. In August, the NTSB released its preliminary report on the crash which left the causes undetermined. Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) leaked reports to the American press accusing co-pilot Gamil El-Batouti of involvement in indecent activities.
These leaks angered the Egyptian people and government, leading NTSB chief Jim Hall to concede that there was no evidence to back up the accusations in the leaks.
"From day one, we said that EgyptAir was not to blame. We take responsibility for the payment of [insurance] compensation but we do not take responsibility for the crash," a top EgyptAir official told the Weekly. He insisted that the crew of flight 990 took every measure possible to save the plane.
"Aviation experts agree that the pilot and the co-pilot dealt with the situation perfectly. Every step they took during the last minutes before the crash was in line with the Boeing 767 manual," he concluded.
Two weeks ago, Egyptian investigators returned home after a short visit to the US to discuss the draft of the final report, which was due to be released by mid-February. The issuing of the draft has now been delayed until April and disputes between Egyptian and American investigators remain unresolved.
Egyptian investigators have suggested a number of scenarios to explain what happened on board the Boeing, each supported by evidence, including the results of an examination of the elevator control system on the 767. However, when the NTSB's preliminary report was released in August, chairman Jim Hall ruled out a mechanical failure, saying that there were "no unresolved safety issues." Since that time the probe has been suspended to give US officials time to respond to Egyptian requests and reservations concerning the preliminary report.
Meanwhile, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered operators of Boeing 767 aircraft to inspect the controls of the elevator mechanism which Egyptian officials suggest may be linked to the EgyptAir crash. Inspection results have not been made public.
EgyptAir investigators, joined by NTSB officials, were scheduled to re-enact the flight on a 767 cockpit simulator at Boeing headquarters in Seattle as one method of exploring the reason for the rapid descent of the plane.
"The aircraft descended at a rate of 23,600 feet [7,193.28 metres] per minute with a speed that reached Mach 0.92, nearly the speed of sound," said an EgyptAir investigator, who added that the plans never came to fruition, as Boeing's simulator could not be programmed with the crash data.
"We asked the US government to release radar photos and air traffic control information and submitted questions to Boeing about the hydraulic bell cranks and elevators," stated a top EgyptAir official who is part of the Egyptian investigation team. However, US investigators responded by saying that these radar images were military secrets.
"The American side insists on ignoring our demands. They have not provided us with all the information they have. And they have simply refused to explore the possibility of a mechanical failure, which does not make for an objective investigation," he added.
The official suggested that the evidence be turned over to a neutral party for a fresh inquiry.
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