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Egyptian charter jet crashes, killing 148
( 2004-01-04 08:55) (Agencies)

A charter jet full of French tourists returning home from Egyptian vacations crashed into the shark-infested Red Sea early Saturday, killing all 148 people aboard. Officials blamed mechanical failure.

Rescue personnel remove debris from the sea off the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh after a charter airliner carrying 148 people, mostly French tourists, crashed into the Red Sea shortly after take off Saturday Jan. 3, 2004. [AP]
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 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.

Flash Airlines Flight FSH604 took off from the popular tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheik bound for Paris after a stopover in Cairo. The weather was clear at the time.

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

Distraught relatives of those aboard Flight FSH604 gathered at airports and travel offices in France and Egypt, desperate for news of their 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 and the United States also was sending an accident investigator, said Keith Holloway, a National Transportation Safety Board spokesman in Washington. He said Egypt requested the help.

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!"

Unidentified relative cries outside the Flash Airline main office in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Jan. 3, 2004. [AP]
Family members hoping to pick up passengers at the French airport early Saturday 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 people ! mostly families or groups of friends ! on the flight and some were children.

Speaking to reporters at the airport in Sharm el-Sheik, 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 the 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 its left turn, Shafeeq said.

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

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 reported that blood was seen in the water because sharks ate some victims.

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

Several people ! 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."

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

The jet flew in early Saturday 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 condition of anonymity the plane underwent routine mechanical and safety checks before leaving Italy and nothing abnormal was noted.

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, issued a statement of condolence.

Sharm el-Sheik, which is about 300 miles southeast of Cairo on the Sinai peninsula, has been the site of several meetings on peace in the Middle East, including one in June in which President Bush met with regional leaders about the so-called "road map" toward creating a Palestinian state.

Saturday's crash 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 people aboard.

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

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