New York Times - November 3, 1999

In Jet Crash Inquiry, Avoiding Past Errors
Mysteries still dominate the investigation into what caused EgyptAir Flight 990 to plunge suddenly into the sea as it headed from New York City toward Cairo early Sunday. No cause has been determined. Little evidence has been recovered. 
But aviation and law enforcement officials pursuing clues in the crash say that one thing is crystal clear: they intend to learn from missteps made during the protracted, often contentious, sometimes mishandled inquiry into the crash of another jumbo jet departing on the same flight path 40 months ago, Trans World Airlines Flight 800. 
In that case, the remarkable efforts involved in retrieving, reassembling and analyzing thousands of shards of airplane were often overshadowed by disputes between investigators seeking hints of a criminal act or a mechanical flaw. And the feat of recovering and identifying the remains of as many of the 230 victims as possible was often overtaken by rancor over delays and by relations with the families of victims. 
The tensions that built in the confounding months after the T.W.A. crash have persisted for years, and in recent months the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the two federal agencies that had worked so imperfectly three years ago, were at work on a set of protocols for future joint efforts. 
The future, it turned out, arrived with tragic suddenness on Sunday. 
There is still no formal agreement between the two agencies, but their commitment to doing this investigation differently has been evident, in ways both striking and subtle. 
James E. Hall, the chairman of the safety board, who for weeks did not go to the site of the Flight 800 crash, has appeared in person at virtually every news briefing, giving cautious answers, trying to limit speculation and, at every opportunity, underscoring the primacy of the safety board in the investigation. By contrast, the top F.B.I. official in the investigation, Lewis D. Schiliro, has remained in New York and appeared at no news conferences. 
In addition, the board, which had never been seriously involved in dealing with the families of victims, has used its new office of family affairs to deal with the emotionally charged question of how to give those families comfort and information. 
"Hopefully, we can do it a lot more clearly than the last time," Schiliro, the assistant director in charge of the New York F.B.I. office, said in an interview Monday night. Before T.W.A. Flight 800, the agencies had never had to deal with each other so intensively, he said, adding: "It took such a while to kind of figure out. That was the first time we had been exposed to that." 
One senior safety board official echoed the sense that things were different. 
"There has clearly been a learning process about the fact that it's an aviation accident until proven otherwise," the official said. 
In the Flight 800 crash, investigators eventually concluded that an explosion in the center fuel tank was responsible for the tragedy. 
While the board, with its engineers and radar specialists, has begun its methodical collection and examination of information, its chairman, Hall, has been emphatic in his effort to establish his agency as the lead investigative outfit, a status he believes it has under federal law. 
During the first 48 hours of the investigation into the EgyptAir 990 crash, Hall dominated the news briefings. In the first news conference on Sunday, he firmly requested that two F.B.I. officials steer clear of the podium. The changed tenor has been impossible to miss. 
A White House official said the Clinton administration had pressed for the agencies to work more effectively in the aftermath of the Flight 800 crash, and this week saw encouraging signs of change. 
"At this stage, things are moving much more smoothly, and we are very pleased with that," the official said. 
The problems with the Flight 800 investigation, which were given a full airing at Congressional hearings last spring, revolved around the often conflicting styles and needs of the F.B.I. and the safety board. 
The board felt outnumbered and strong-armed, and its investigators complained that too much speculation was going on, that interviews with witnesses were mishandled and that they were occasionally denied access to evidence. The F.B.I., the board felt, was convinced the plane had been brought down by a bomb
and was determined to prove it. 
The F.B.I., for its part, felt it had a responsibility to move aggressively. 
"They showed up with very little staff for weeks," James K. Kallstrom, the former F.B.I. official who ran the bureau's Flight 800 investigation, said of the safety board. "They had five or six people there. We had thousands of leads. I didn't even see Jim Hall for a month." 
Although the crash of Flight 990 has some eerie echoes of Flight 800, and while investigators are making an effort to conduct the inquiry differently, there are also many factual differences that have colored the responses to the two disasters. 
The similarities are that a jumbo jet left Kennedy International Airport and abruptly fell into the ocean with no distress call. The abrupt destruction, as well as that it involved an airliner whose destination was Egypt, a country with a history of terrorist problems, naturally led to the involvement of the F.B.I. 
But the differences are profound, say investigators involved in the two cases. Flight 800 crashed when the United States was on the "highest state of alert for terrorism in decades," said Kallstrom, now an executive at an insurance company in Delaware. 
It exploded shortly after a summer sunset within sight of the South Shore of Long Island, Kallstrom said, producing dozens of witnesses, some of whose accounts speculated that a missile had downed the plane. 
"I think what happened there is that pretty much everybody thought, including the N.T.S.B., that that was a bomb," Kallstrom said. 
He said those facts justified the F.B.I.'s dominance in the early days of the Flight 800 inquiry. In contrast, the EgyptAir plane crashed late at night and far from shore. 
But if the facts are different in some ways, the handling of the current investigation reflects a switch in conduct driven by much more than differing circumstances. It reflects a much stronger stance and broader role by the safety board. 
Perhaps most noticeably, there has been an effort to limit conjecture and promises of early answers. 
"I hope the other thing -- not only with the F.B.I., across the board -- is to fight the tendency to speculate," Schiliro said. 
In the wake of the T.W.A. case, treatment of the families of victims has also changed substantially. 
After Flight 800, families of dozens of victims were sequestered at the Ramada Inn at Kennedy International Airport, where instead of finding sanctuary and a stream of reliable information, they chiefly encountered confusion. They soon grew angry at the pace of the investigation and delays in identifying victims. 
"The ballroom was like a convention selling something, with these poor families sitting around, surrounded by police organizations," recalled Hans Ephraimson-Abt. He is a spokesman for the Air Crash Victims Family Group, an informal association of kin of victims of the Flight 800 crash, the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111, and other aviation accidents. 
On Sunday, families of some victims of Flight 990 were taken to the same Ramada Inn. But this time, victims' families were quickly surrounded by teams of grief specialists from the safety board, EgyptAir and the Red Cross. Within a day, they began moving to Newport, R.I., where their numbers had swelled yesterday to more than 270 people, Red Cross officials said. 
A law passed after the T.W.A. Flight 800 crash, the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996, broadened the mandate of the safety board to include not just crash investigation, but also to assist survivors of crashes, if any, and families of victims. The law also firmly established the role of the Red Cross in providing counseling and other aid in the hours and days after a disaster, said Phil Zepeda, a Red Cross spokesman at the Newport family assistance center. 
"Before 1996, it was all kind of ad-libbed, and now our position in providing grief counseling is solidified," he said. "With each case, we become more efficient and effective. Unfortunately, our training ground is a plane crash."

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