- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — A charter jet full of French tourists returning home from New Year’s vacations at this Egyptian resort crashed into the Red Sea yesterday, killing all 148 aboard. Officials blamed mechanical failure.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said the crash, which came as nations heightened security at airports and canceled flights because of terror threats, was “not related to any terrorist act.”

The Civil Aviation Ministry said the crash of the Egyptian jet was an accident, apparently caused by a mechanical problem.

French officials also said the crash appeared accidental. Deputy Transportation Minister Dominique Bussereau told reporters at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris that the pilot detected problems on takeoff and tried vainly to turn back.

The crash followed a week of terrorist alerts that led to flight cancellations in Europe and the United States over fears of suicide bombers.

Flash Airlines Flight FSH604 took off from the popular tourist resort of Sharm el Sheik bound for a stop in Cairo to refuel and take on a new crew before heading to Paris.

A French Foreign Ministry spokesman said 133 French tourists were on the flight. One Japanese, one Moroccan and 13 Egyptian crew members also were aboard, Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafeeq said.

Distraught relatives of those aboard the flight gathered at airports and travel offices in France and Egypt, desperate for news of loved ones.

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin declared the nation in mourning and said investigators will go to Egypt to “shed light as quickly as possible on this catastrophe.”

Engineers from the national carrier EgyptAir rushed in to help with the investigation.

The United States was sending an accident investigator, said Keith Holloway, a National Transportation Safety Board spokesman in Washington. Egypt requested the help, he said.

At the Flash Airlines office in Cairo, a man who came to check on his daughter, a 30-year-old flight attendant on the plane, walked out in despair 15 minutes later, supported by relatives.

“Samia, Samia,” he wailed. Next to him, his wife screamed, “My daughter, my daughter.”

Family members hoping to pick up passengers at the French airport early yesterday were discreetly pulled aside by authorities and taken by shuttle bus to a nearby hotel.

Looking pale and shaken, a couple in their 50s arrived at the terminal, where the man asked an airport official: “My children are at Sharm. How do I find out if they were on the plane?”

Most of the passengers were on a tour organized by FRAM, one of France’s largest travel operators. FRAM said it had 125 passengers on the flight — mostly families or groups of friends, including children.

Speaking to reporters at the airport in Sharm el Sheik, Mr. Shafeeq said the plane checked out fine before takeoff.

“The first indications suggest a technical fault,” he said, saying the last communication with the plane was at 5,300 feet.

According to radar images, the plane turned left as normal after takeoff, then suddenly straightened out and turned right before plunging into the sea one minute after the left turn, Mr. Shafeeq said.

Earlier, he told state-run television: “There was a malfunction that made it difficult for the crew to … save the plane.”

Mr. Shafeeq said the depth of the water — at least 1,000 feet — complicated retrieval efforts, but some bodies, as well as airplane wreckage, were found. A marine official in a nearby port said at least 50 body parts were found.

Tourists in swimsuits watched from the beach as rescuers circled the waters in small boats, looking for survivors. They found only bodies, body parts and debris, including suitcases, shoes, life preservers and small bits of plane wreckage.

Egypt’s Middle East News Agency (MENA) reported that sharks were in the water.

Flash Airlines said in a statement that the wreckage was found about nine miles from the airport, according to the Egyptian news agency.

Several tourists and workers at a nearby Sheraton resort hotel said they were awakened by a loud sound or explosion when the jet crashed shortly before 5 a.m. local time.

“It’s scary,” French tourist Sandrine Prost said. “I would never imagine that this could happen.”

It was Egypt’s biggest aviation disaster since 1999, when an EgyptAir jetliner crashed shortly after leaving New York en route to Cairo, killing all 217 aboard.

In 2002, an EgyptAir plane with 62 on board slammed into a hillside near the Tunis airport, killing 14 and injuring dozens more.

Flash Airlines, in business for six years, said the Boeing 737 was one of two it owned.

The jet flew in early yesterday from Venice, Italy, dropping off passengers in Sharm el Sheik, the airline said. New passengers then boarded for the flight to Paris via Cairo.

The airplane underwent maintenance checks in Norway and the most recent showed no problems, officials said.

A Venice airport official said on the condition of anonymity that nothing abnormal was noted in routine mechanical and safety checks before the plane left Italy.

French President Jacques Chirac and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak expressed condolences to each other in a phone call. Egypt said it would provide a private jet to fly home the bodies of the French victims, MENA reported.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was visiting the popular resort with his family, issued a statement of condolence.

The disaster happened hours before Mr. Blair’s wife, Cherie, and their children were due to fly home to London from the same airport, the London Sunday Telegraph reported.

The Blairs flew to Sharm el Sheik the day after Christmas, accompanied by Mrs. Blair’s mother, Gayle Booth; their four children, Euan, Nicky, Kathryn and Leo; and Euan’s girlfriend, Katie Sanders. A spokesman told the Telegraph that all were safe and well.

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