Aug. 26, 2000 -- U.S. Navy divers have retrieved the diplomatic pouches carried by a U.S. courier who was killed in this week’s Gulf Air crash off Bahrain.
The divers began looking for the “diplomatic cargo” at dawn Friday and found it in the shallow waters off Bahrain on Friday afternoon, said Cmdr. Jeff Gradeck, spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s5th Fleet, which is based in Bahrain.
The courier, Seth J. Foti, 31, of Browntown, Va., was the only American aboard Gulf Air flight 72 when it crashed into 18 feet of clear water Wednesday evening, killing all 143 people on board.
Foti was carrying classified information in yellow pouches, the U.S. State Department said. These were recovered by the same team that found the plane’s “black boxes”— its cockpit voice and flight data recorders.
The black boxes will be shipped to Washington for analysis tonight.
The U.S. Embassy in Bahrain held a private memorial service today for Foti, one of 97 full-time State Department couriers. He and his wife of three months, Anisha, met at the embassy, where she had worked briefly last year.
Foti’s body is expected to arrive in Washington on Sunday, and a funeral is being planned in his hometown.
Meanwhile, a team of more than 20 inspectors from the United States, Bahrain, France, Egypt and Oman began their investigation today, examining the plane’s tail as it jutted out of the sea.
The NTSB's Frank Hilldrup is considered the head of the investigation. But he must report to a committee headed by the Bahraini Minister of Transportation, Shaikh Ali bin Khalifa Al Khalifa.
An eight-man advance team began by photographing an expanse of sea littered with scraps. Mobile phones and clothing bobbed in the water, although divers had retrieved most personal effects.
“We’re going to map out the wreckage area and where the pieces are,” said one of three investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. “Obviously, then we still have to pull the stuff out.”
Nineteen pieces of wreckage , several still in the sea, have been logged as “significant” so far.
“Time is now of the essence because of the sand,” said Bahraini Civil Defense Chief Col. James Windsor, who is coordinating the salvage work. “If you don’t recover them in the next few days, it will cover up the pieces.”
Windsor said a 1¼-mile area surrounding the site has been closed to boat traffic.
Last Seconds A Mystery
Investigators will try to determine what happened in the time between pilot Ihsan Shakeeb’s aborted landing and the plane’s crash in shallow water 60 seconds later.
Gulf Air’s chief pilot Hameed Ali said investigators would examine the speed and altitude of Shakeeb’s aborted landing as part of their probe.
“It is very important, and I may add that intracockpit communication is even more important. We have not listened to that yet,” Ali told a packed press conference. But, Ali stressed, “we have spotted no error in [Shakeeb’s] approach.”
Egyptians’ Remains Flown Home
In Cairo, meanwhile, more than 150 relatives gathered at the airport today to meet caskets wrapped in blue-plaid cloth and plastic — the remains of 56 Egyptian crash victims flown home from Bahrain.
Women dressed in black wailed their grief as the names of the victims were called out, and family members were led to ambulances to be taken to independent burial services.
“This is the hardest thing on earth for us,” said Ali Mohammed Hassan, whose cousin, Reda Hassan, died on the flight.
A total of 64 Egyptians were killed in the crash; identification of the remains continued today, slowed down by the poor condition of the bodies after the violent crash. Most of the plane wreckage is in small pieces.
Bahrain observed its third official day of mourning today. The 34 Bahraini crash victims were buried on Thursday, The Gulf News Agency said.
The remaining victims were 12 Saudi Arabians, six from the United Arab Emirates, three Chinese, two Britons and one each from Canada, Oman, Kuwait, Sudan, Australia, as well as Foti from the United States. There was also a family of nine Palestinians that included seven children aged between 10 months and 15 years. The crew comprised two Bahrainis and one each from Oman, the Philippines, Poland, India, Morocco and Egypt.
Gulf Air has offered professional counseling to the bereaved. It also has pledged $25,000 to each family that lost an adult relative. The airline said it would consider increasing that amount once the investigation has finished.
It’s not unusual for the NTSB to aid in plane crash investigations overseas, especially if the country involved has strong ties to the United States. Another reason for NTSB investigators assisting in the operation is the large number of Airbus A320 planes operating in the United States.
But some Egyptians are skeptical about NTSB participation. Government officials are still angry about the preliminary report on the EgyptAir crash last October in the Atlantic Ocean. They accuse U.S. investigators of trying to put the blame on an Egyptian co-pilot.
Although the NTSB says it does not have an official cause for that crash, officials have said privately they suspect the co-pilot committed suicide, taking the plane and passengers down with him. Egyptian officials dispute this conclusion and maintain a mechanical problem must have downed the plane.
Callers to an Egyptian talk radio show have been saying they doubt any inquiry involving the NTSB could be impartial. They regard the EgyptAir inquiry as a blatant attempt to blame the pilot in order to exonerate the reputation of the U.S.-manufactured Boeing 767, and to neutralize insurance claims.
No Evidence of Engine Fire?
Hamid Ali, chief pilot for Gulf Air’s Airbus 320 fleet, said that the pilot of the doomed jet had sounded “calm and normal” during conversations with the control tower at Manama airport.
Ali said that the plane was not coming in too fast or too high. Gulf Air also said Friday that it had no verification of media reports that an engine on the Airbus A320 had caught fire.
“Gulf Air’s position is that there is no evidence … that there was a fire in the engine. Three Gulf Airemployees saw the incident and none of them reported there wasanything unusual about the plane,” an airline spokesman said.
Gulf Air Flight 72 took off at 3:20 p.m. (8:20 a.m. EDT) Wednesday from Cairo, Egypt, en route to Manama, the capital of Bahrain. The plane departed 20 minutes late because of immigration delays, Gulf Air said. It had been scheduled to land at 7 p.m. local time (noon EDT). It crashed at 7:30 p.m., Bahraini officials said.
Al-Hamar said the aircraft was on its third approach to the airport when it crashed into the sea. One witness on a U.S. Navy boat said there was an engine fire, but an air traffic controller and other witnesses said they saw no evidence of such a fire.
The pilot, Shakeeb, 38, had worked with Gulf Air since 1979 and clocked 6,856 hours of flight time, Gulf Air said. The airline requires its pilots to have at least 4,000 hours of flight experience.
ABCNEWS’ Hoda Abdel-Hamid and Mike Lee in Manama and Barbara Starr in Washington, ABCNEWS.com’s Andrew Chang and The Associated Press contributed to this report.