More than 24 hours after a routine red-eye flight from Paris to Cairo disappeared over the Mediterranean, both the EgyptAir Airbus A320 and the definitive reason behind the flight dropping off radar remained elusive.
EgyptAir recanted a statement that Greeks helping with the search had discovered wreckage near the island of Karpathos.
“EGYPTAIR resource stated that the Egyptian Ministry of Civil Aviation has just received an official letter from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declaring the finding of wreckage of the missing aircraft No. MS 804 near Karpathos Island,” the airline said in a statement as Thursday turned to Friday in Cairo.
“EGYPTAIR sincerely conveys its deepest sorrow to the families and friends of the passengers onboard Flight MS804. Family members of passengers and crew have been already informed and we extend our deepest sympathies to those affected. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Investigation Team in co-operation with the Greek counterpart are still searching for other remains of the missing plane.”
EgyptAir’s Vice Chairman Ahmed Adel told CNN that as searchers got closer to the wreckage, they realized it was a mistake.
“We stand corrected on finding the wreckage because what we identified is not a part of our plane. So the search and rescue is still going on,” Adel said.
The airline changed the regular blue tones on its Twitter page and website to black and gray.
The Greek and Egyptian militaries are cooperating in the search, along with assistance from the U.S., UK, Cyprus, Italy and France.
The flight consisted of 56 passengers (including two infants and one child) and 10 crew — five cabin crew members, three security officers, and two in the cockpit. The pilot had more than 6,000 flight hours and was said to sound cheerful upon his last radio contact at 2:30 a.m. Cairo time. The plane dropped off radar 10 minutes later.
Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos said the plane was about 10 miles into Egyptian airspace and cruising at 37,000 feet when the trouble began.
“It turned 90 degrees left and then a 360-degree turn toward the right, dropping from 38,000 to 15,000 feet and then it was lost at about 10,000 feet,” Kammenos said.
Thirty of the passengers on board were from Egypt, while 15 were from France. There were two passengers from Iraq, and one each from Britain, Algeria, Belgium, Canada, Chad, Kuwait, Portugal, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
“The United States offers our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew of EgyptAir Flight 804, as well as to the countries affected by this tragedy, first and foremost Egypt and France,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement Thursday evening.
“At this time we do not yet know definitively what caused the disappearance of Flight 804,” he added. “The United States stands ready to provide our full support and resources to the Governments of Egypt and France as they investigate this incident.”
Unofficially, U.S. officials were pointing toward terrorism — likely a bomb — as the pilots were experienced, the plane was in good condition, no hazardous cargo was believed to be on board, and the weather was smooth sailing.
No ISIS statements were found to corroborate a Newsday report and some web rumors that the terror group’s Amaq Agency wire service had issued a claim of responsibility. Amaq has released official statements on previous ISIS attacks, and published multiple claims throughout Thursday of attacks in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS issued their day’s-end news report as usual, with grisly photos of executions and a public crucifixion yet no mention of the doomed airliner.
The plane went down just two days after al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released their first Inspire magazine issue in several months. It stressed the need to turn Egypt into an Islamic State to facilitate “the liberation of Palestine,” but didn’t make direct threats about an airline attack. It featured illustrated how-tos for making a package bomb, a magnetic car bomb and a doorjamb bomb in line with the issue’s assassination theme. For years, AQAP has been developing and experimenting with explosives that they hope could get past current airport security screening standards.
The magazine did include some seemingly random references to France, including, “One year after Charlie Hebdo attack, how has France changed … alot indeed.”
There was a warning to France and its allies in the issue from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, included in a lengthy statement about their January attack on a hotel popular with foreigners in Burkina Faso.
“Security in today’s worlds is a complete matter, not separate. Either you leave us in peace in our lands or we will destroy your security and the security of your people, the same way you destroyed ours… this operation is only a drop in the ocean of the ongoing global jihad,” AQIM said.
EgyptAir made stops in Tunisia and Eritrea before picking up passengers in Paris. Planes are swept by security at each stop, but former CIA Director James Woolsey told CNN it was “far more likely that someone who worked in one of those airports was able to get something into the plane.”
Woolsey called the subcontracting at airports, in areas such as janitorial and maintenance, a “real vulnerability.”
“We have to make sure that people are vetted extremely carefully… we haven’t paid much attention to this,” he said.
The U.S. Navy sent a P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft from Patrol Squadron VP-4 at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily to join the search.
“This is still early in the investigation. The Egyptians and the French are taking the lead on this, and we’ll be as supportive as we can be. But we have really nothing really at this point that leads us to any conclusions,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters.
State Department press secretary John Kirby said he wasn’t aware of any intention to issue a travel alert in connection with the downing of the plane. “If we feel there’s a need in the future, we’ll certainly do that,” he said.
At NATO today, Secretary of State John Kerry brushed off questions about EgyptAir because “nothing does more harm to people or countries than to start speculating ahead of time.”