Bush administration officials yesterday made a concerted effort to dispel fears that the crash of an American Airlines plane in Queens, N.Y., was an act of terrorism although none offered concrete evidence to the contrary.
The day began with a sense of deja vu for President Bush two months and a day almost to the minute since he received early-morning news that crashes in New York were the act of terrorists. But reports yesterday quickly pointed to an accidental crash.
“The reports that I have so far suggest, apparently, that it is an accident,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday. “Let us hope that turns out to be the case, although it is nonetheless tragic for that.”
Mr. Bush, appearing in the Rose Garden with former South African President Nelson Mandela, did not answer questions after expressing condolences to families of the victims.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer also deflected questions, choosing neither to confirm nor to deny assessments by some federal officials that there was no preliminary evidence of terrorism.
“The president is aware of the statements that have been made by the other officials,” said Mr. Fleischer, adding that they were made for an “understandable reason.” Still, he did not dispute the reports.
The spokesman did, however, warn reporters that “first facts are often facts that are subject to the greatest change.”
“I want to be very cautious about any conclusions at this early time about what is the cause of this,” Mr. Fleischer said during his daily White House briefing. “We have not ruled anything in, not ruled anything out.”
Mr. Fleischer also took issue with a report that a “government official” said an explosion had occurred aboard the plane shortly before it crashed, killing all 260 persons aboard.
“I saw a report on the news earlier that indicated a government official had said there was an explosion on board. I’ve been informed that there was no government official who gave any such indication.”
He said the White House had received no credible threats coinciding with the crash, which came two months after the Sept. 11 hijack attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Mr. Fleischer pointed out that the National Transportation Safety Board was handling the matter. The NTSB handles matters that are accidents; the FBI handles criminal matters.
The spokesman also said that despite reports, Vice President Richard B. Cheney did not leave the White House after the crash. “The vice president was already at an undisclosed secure location,” he said.
Investigators also took pains to play down speculation that the crash of Flight 587 was caused by sabotage, frightening a nation already on high alert for the September terrorist attacks.
“All information we have currently is that this is an accident,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Marion Blakey said.
The day began much like September 11, with Mr. Bush receiving news of a plane crash in New York. Yesterday, a military aide handed the president a note at 9:25 a.m. while Mr. Bush was attending a meeting of his National Security Council.
At that point, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge went to the White House Situation Room and began a conference call with Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta, Federal Emergency Management Administration Director Joe Allbaugh and officials from the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Mr. Bush, meanwhile, called New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and also spoke with Gov. George E. Pataki, expressing to both to “his deepest sympathy for the people of New York to be enduring any other such trauma at a time when New York has already gone through so much,” Mr. Fleischer said.
Mr. Bush postponed a scheduled interview with Russian and American reporters so he could monitor the investigation into the crash of Flight 587, but he planned to go ahead with a scheduled three-day meeting starting today with Russian President Vladimir Putin.