|New York Times
- November 3, 1999
In Jet Crash Inquiry, Avoiding
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
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
One senior safety board official echoed the sense that things were
"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
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."