CAIRO – An EgyptAir plane made abrupt turns and plunged steeply Thursday shortly before disappearing from radar over the Mediterranean Sea, a Greek official said, deepening the mystery over the possible final moments aboard the Cairo-bound plane with 66 people on board.
Investigators said they were leaving open all possibilities behind the apparent crash, but a top Egyptian aviation official suggested that terrorism seemed more likely than a technical failure.
“The possibility of a terror attack is higher than a malfunction, but again I don’t want to hypothesize,” Egypt’s civil aviation minister, Sherif Fathy, told reporters without giving further details.
Even as a minute-by-minute account emerged of the plane’s last recorded movements, rescue vessels and aircraft combed the sea between Greece’s southern islands and the Egyptian coast. Greek state television reported that “objects” were spotted about 50 miles south of the plane’s last known location, but it was not immediately clear if the debris was linked to the aircraft.
Officials in Paris, where the flight began, also opened their own investigations into why the Airbus A320 vanished about 45 minutes from its scheduled landing in Cairo. French President François Hollande said the plane had “crashed,” but he gave no more details on what could have brought down the plane.
“No hypothesis is favored or ruled out at this stage,” a statement from the French prosecutor’s office said about its investigation.
But the sudden cut from ground contact raised inevitable parallels with aircraft incidents caused at cruising altitude by attacks, bombs or pilot intervention rather than technical malfunctions.
The accounts from Greece – the last that flight controllers were in contact with the pilot – detailed a baffling deviation from the flight path.
The Airbus made “sudden swerves” and dropped from 37,000 feet to 15,000 feet moments after crossing from the Greek flight control area into Egypt’s jurisdiction, said Greece’s defense minister, Panos Kammenos.
The first turn was a sharp, 90-degree veer to the east after passing over the Greek island of Karpathos, Kammenos told reporters in Athens. Then the plane made a full circular loop – a “360 degree turn,” Kammenos said.
“We cannot rule anything out,” Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail told reporters at Cairo’s airport.
Earlier, there was conflicting information about whether officials received a distress signal from the aircraft. The airline said it received one from the Airbus A320, but the Egyptian armed forces later said they were unaware of such a signal.
Airbus expressed regret over the “loss” of the aircraft in a Facebook statement.
Flight MS804 had gone as scheduled while it crossed Europe. As the plane left Greek airspace, the pilot “was in good spirits and thanked the controller in Greek,” according to Greece’s civil aviation agency.
It was last noted on radar about 175 miles off Egypt’s Mediterranean port city of Alexandria – an area of sea known for fast currents and frequent high winds. A Pentagon spokesman, Capt. Jeff Davis, said a U.S. P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft will join the search teams.
A statement posted on the Facebook page of Egyptian army spokesman Mohamed Samir said a number of airplanes and navy vessels have been dispatched. A state of emergency was declared at military hospitals and disaster operations centers.
Of the 66 people onboard, 56 were passengers, including two infants and one child, seven were crew members, and three were security personnel. French authorities told reporters at a news conference that it is usual practice for EgyptAir to have three security officers onboard.
Among those onboard, according to the airline, were 30 Egyptians, 15 French nationals, two Iraqis, and one passenger each from England, Belgium, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Chad, Portugal, Algeria and Canada. No Americans were on the flight.
The pilot of the plane had more than 6,000 hours of flight experience, including more than 2,000 hours flying the same model as the vanished aircraft, EgyptAir said. The co-pilot had nearly 3,000 flying hours.
Manufactured in 2003, the plane was powered by International Aero Engines and had about 48,000 flight hours, Airbus said.
Relatives of passengers were kept in a lounge with on-site doctors and translators at the Cairo airport. They left after a few hours and were told to await updates by phone. One man with four relatives on the plane said he “knows nothing.”
Amr Sami, a regional EgyptAir spokesman at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, told The Washington Post that EgyptAir flights from the French capital will continue as scheduled.
Meanwhile, family members of those onboard began streaming into a makeshift crisis center at a hotel near the airport. As French police ushered them in, they were tearful and bewildered, some pushing strollers with small children. They did not speak to reporters.
In March, an EgyptAir flight from Alexandria was hijacked and diverted to Cyprus. The suspect, 59-year-old Seif Eldin Mustafa, surrendered and all hostages were released.
A Russian plane exploded in midair over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last October, killing all 223 people aboard. An affiliate of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.
In March 2015, a Germanwings flight plunged into the French Alps after the co-pilot took control in an apparent suicide dive that also claimed the lives of 149 others onboard.
Heba Habib reported from Cairo; Sudarsan Raghavan from Sanaa, Yemen; and Brian Murphy from Washington. The Washington Post’s James McAuley in Paris; Erin Cunningham in Istanbul; and Yanan Wang, Missy Ryan and Sarah Kaplan in Washington contributed to this report.
Video: EgyptAir Flight MS804 left Paris late Wednesday night, but lost contact with the tracking system at 2:30 a.m. Cairo time on May 19. Armed forces are searching an area 40 miles north of the Egyptian coastline. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)