U.S. Divers Search Classified Material

ByABC News

Aug. 25, 2000 -- U.S. Navy divers are scouring the waters of the Persian Gulf for classified information carried by an American diplomatic courier on board ill-fated Gulf Air Flight 72.

State Department courier Seth J. Foti, 31, was carrying classified “diplomatic cargo,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, when the Airbus A320 crashed in 18 feet of water near Bahrain International Airport, killing all 143 people on board. Foti was the only American.

Navy divers from the USNS Catawba Thursday tried to recover the cargo, State Department and Pentagon sources said. The Catawba, an ocean-going tugboat often used in salvage operations is helping out with its 10-ton crane.

State Department officials declined to specify what was in the cargo. They would only note that couriers escort everything from classified material, to large crates of equipment that must remain under U.S. government control during shipping.

Navy sources say divers have only a general description of the containers they should look for on their dives. By late this evening in Bahrain the material still had not been found, and operations were suspended, to be resumed at first light Friday.

The team diving

for the material is the same team that early this morning recovered the plane’s cockpit voice and flight data recorders — its “black boxes.”

Foti was one of 97 couriers, all American citizens, employed full-time for the purpose of ensuring the security of classified material or equipment when it is transported across international borders.

He joined the U.S Diplomatic Service in April 1999 and was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, 14 months ago, a State Department official said.

“His dedication to the mission of courier service was unmatched, and he was clearly an asset to the Department of State and the U.S. government. His friends and colleagues in the U.S. government will miss him very dearly,” Boucher said.

Six U.S. diplomatic couriers have died in airplane crashes. The last time a courier was killed was in a crash in Cameroon in 1963.

Experts ArriveExperts from Airbus, which manufactures the A320 plane that crashed, arrived in Bahrain Thursday and joined Bahraini Communications Minister Sheik Ali bin Khalifa al-Khalifa and representatives from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, Gulf Air, Oman Civil Aviation and other local government agencies in analyzing the plane’s two “black boxes,” Gulf Air said.

Two NTSB investigators were en route to the accident site. 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 operation is the large number of Airbus A320 planes operating in the U.S.

Gulf Air Flight 72 took off at 3:20 p.m. (8:20 a.m. ET) 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 ET). It crashed at 7:20 p.m., Bahraini sources said.

Bahraini state television and a newspaper said the aircraft made two approaches to the airport before crashing 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.

There were 135 passengers and eight crew members on board, Gulf Air and other local sources said.

One-third of the passengers on board were under 18. There were 26 children under the age of 10, and 18 were under the age of 5.

Egyptian Teachers

The passenger list includes 63 Egyptians, 34 Bahrainis, 12 Saudis, nine Palestinians, six citizens of the United Arab Emirates, three Chinese, two Britons, Foti the American and one each from Australia, Kuwait, Oman, Sudan and Canada.

Most of the Egyptians were teachers and their families, returning to Bahrain at the end of the school holidays.

Gulf Air said that of the aircraft’s eight crew members, the captain was Bahraini and the co-pilot was from Oman. The male cabin attendant was Bahraini and five female attendants came from the Philippines, Poland, India, Morocco and Egypt.

An official from the Ministry of the Interior Flying Wing, speaking under condition of anonymity, described the rescue operation. “Most of the bodies we have found are in pretty bad shape and I think that identifying them would be quite difficult,” he said.

In a televised statement on Wednesday, Bahraini Emir Hamad bin Isa Khalifa declared a three-day period of mourning. He also announced that an inquiry commission had been formed to determine what caused the crash.

ABCNEWS’ Barbara Starr and Sue Masterman, ABCNEWS.com’s Andrew Chang, Sascha Segan, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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