PARIS — A passenger jet carrying 66 people from Paris to Cairo plummeted from the sky early this morning as it crossed the Mediterranean Sea.
EgyptAir Flight 804 was at cruising altitude when it suddenly dropped at least 20,000 feet and disappeared from radar systems at around 2:30 a.m. local time (9:30 p.m. ET). Early reports on distress signals have conflicted but it appears that the pilot did not warn air-traffic controllers of any problems before the plane disappeared.
Egypt’s aviation minister Sherif Fathi said the most likely explanation for the crash was a terror attack. The French authorities said it was too soon to determine the cause but they were not discounting the possibility that the plane had been destroyed after an explosion.
“The information that we have managed to gather confirm alas that this plane has crashed, and it has disappeared,” said French President François Hollande. “It could be a terrorist hypothesis but at this stage we should express our solidarity to the families and to find out the cause of the catastrophe.”
The search operation is concentrated around the Greek Islands in the Aegean in the east of the Mediterranean, where witnesses reportedly claimed they saw flames in the sky. Greek officials said they had located two orange objects and blue and white debris which they—and EgyptAir—believe to be part of the plane.
A similar Airbus plane operated by Metrojet was brought down in Egyptian airspace in October, killing all 224 people on board. The Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility for the attack.
Another EgyptAir flight was hijacked by a man wearing a fake suicide belt in March. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Egypt to discuss security issues with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Wednesday.
The EgyptAir flight took off from Charles de Gaulle Airport late Wednesday night carrying 56 passengers and 10 crew, including security officials. Among the travelers en route to Egypt were two babies and one child. The flight manifest shows 30 Egyptian passengers, 15 French, and 10 other nationalities, including one Canadian and one Brit.
Jean-Paul Troadec, the former head of France’s air-accident investigation team, has told French television station Europe 1 that he believes the plane was probably brought down by terrorists.
“There’s a strong possibility of an explosion on board from a bomb or a suicide bomber. The idea of a technical accident, when weather conditions were good, seems also possible but not that likely. We could also consider a missile, which is what happened to the Malaysia Airlines aircraft in July 2014,” he said, according to a translation by The Guardian.
“If the crew didn’t send an alert signal, it’s because what happened was very sudden. A problem with an engine or a technical fault would not produce an immediate accident. In this case, the crew did not react, which makes us think of a bomb.”
The Airbus A320, which has an excellent safety record, had just entered Egyptian airspace but it was still around 175 miles from the North African coast when it disappeared from radar screens, according to an EgyptAir statement.
Greek air-traffic controllers spoke to the pilot as he passed over the Greek island of Kea in the Mediterranean. “The pilot did not mention any problems,” Kostas Litzerakis, the head of Greece’s civil aviation department, told the Reuters news agency.
A Greek defense department source also told Reuters that they were looking into a claim from the captain of a merchant ship who said he had seen a “flame in the sky” around 130 nautical miles south of Karpathos, in the Aegean Sea, which is part of the Mediterranean between Greece and Turkey.
ANSA, the Italian news agency, quoted unnamed Italian navy sources to suggest that a merchant ship in the area had reported seeing a “fireball in the sky” around 150 miles south of the island. Dozens of Italian navy and European Frontex border-control vessels are in the area between Egypt, Libya, and Italy patrolling the waters for migrant and refugee boats needing assistance.
Greece has deployed an aircraft and frigate to the area to help search for the plane, and an anonymous Greek aviation source told the AFP news agency that they believe the plane has crashed near the Greek islands.
Under United Nations regulations, the Egyptians will be primarily responsible for investigating the cause of the plane’s disappearance—despite their difficulties in dealing with the fallout from the Metrojet crash late last year.
At a press conference at Cairo Airport, where the plane was due to land early this morning, Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail was asked if he could rule out a terror attack. “We cannot exclude anything at this time or confirm anything. All the search operations must be concluded so we can know the cause,” he said. “Search operations are ongoing at this time for the airplane in the area where it is believed to have lost contact.”
According to a flight-tracking website, the plane had traveled Wednesday to Asmara, Eritrea, then Tunis, Tunisia, and then Cairo before it began its final journey from France.
At Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, relatives of those who were on board the plane began to gather early this morning, desperate for information. A team of at least five psychologists, a doctor, and a nurse were on hand amid a chaotic scene at that included a crush of media and photographers, police, and French officials.
Fatma, whose cousin was on the flight, told The Telegraph: “My cousin took his little girl with him. They’re dead, I know they’re dead. There’s no hope, no hope at all. The girl’s mother asked him not to take her. She begged him, ‘don’t take the girl with you’. She must have felt something was going to happen. She’s crying now. She’s in a bad way.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault addressed the press outside the Mercure Hotel at Charles de Gaulle, where he said officials had spoken to the families of the passengers on the plane and offered them seats on planes to Cairo.
“It was a very emotional time,” he said. “The families learned the details of what we know so far about the plane’s disappearance. We are remaining very cautious about what we say as so little is known right now. Nothing is confirmed.”
Officials at the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center (ESISC) in Brussels said early Thursday evening that they had reviewed all alleged instances of ISIS claiming responsibility for the attacks and said there was no "credible sign of confirmation from ISIS at this time."
Evgenia Gvozdeva of ESISC said that while ISIS supporters expressed happiness and support for the attacks on social media, there was nothing linking them to any official confirmation.