Searchers have recovered the bodies all 143 people, many of them children, who were aboard the Gulf Air Airbus A320 that crashed today in the Persian Gulf.
Confirming the grim death toll, Ibrahim Abdullah al-Hammar, Bahrain’s Transport Ministry Undersecretary for Civil Aviation also said search and rescue workers had recovered the flight data recorder, or black box, from the passenger jet.
“Yes, we have found the black box and the search for the other box which records conversations in the cockpit is still going on,” Hammar told a news conference at Bahrain International Airport.
Gulf Air Flight 72 took off from Cairo, Egypt, en route to Manama, Bahrain’s capital.
Bahraini state television and a newspaper said the aircraft made two approaches to the airport before crashing into the sea. Unconfirmed reports said there was an engine fire, but an air traffic controller and 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.
A Gulf Air official said the passengers included 63 Egyptians, 34 Bahrainis, 12 Saudi Arabians, nine Palestinians, six UAE nationals, one Kuwaiti and one Omani.
Most of the Egyptians were teachers and their families, returning the Bahrain at the end of the school holidays.
There were two British passengers, one Australian and one Canadian, as well as three Chinese people, one Sudanese and one Korean.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said there was one American on the plane.
A State Department official told ABCNEWS.com that Bahraini officials had informed the U.S. Embassy that they had a boarding pass that shows a U.S. diplomatic courier on board the flight.
The official had no further details on the identity of the courier, but said all U.S. diplomatic couriers had to be U.S. citizens.
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. “So far most of the bodies we have found are in pretty bad shape and I think that identifying them would be quite difficult,” he said.
The wreckage is in about 18 feet of water, U.S. military officials in Washington said.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been asked to take part in the investigation.
In a televised statement, 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 the causes of the crash.
Plane Made Two Approaches
A transport ministry official told Bahrain Television the pilot of the doomed plane had asked for a second approach after failing to land the first time.
Gulf Air confirmed this, saying in a statement: “The aircraft…was conducting a normal approach into runway 12 at Bahrain International Airport. Approximately 1 nautical mile from touchdown and at about 600 feet above sea level the aircraft commenced a go-around.
“During the go-around the aircraft impacted the sea approximately 1 nautical mile north of the airport,” the statement read.
An air-traffic controller at the Bahrain airport described watching the plane circle the runway twice in an attempt to land, then on the third attempt plunge into the sea and explode into flames.
The controller, who wished not to be named, said he saw no flames or sign of trouble before the crash and could not immediately explain why the plane circled before landing. He said the plane’s crew did not report anything out of the ordinary. He gave the time of the crash as 7:20 p.m. local time (2:20 p.m. ET).
Witnesses See Plane Crash
Two Bahraini men from the Al-Fodha neighborhood near the airport outside Manama said the plane flew over their heads at an unusually low altitude heading to the runway, but took a sharp turn toward the sea.
“I could not believe my eyes,” said a 27-year-old who identified himself only as Sobeih. “When I saw it heading toward the sea nose down, I screamed, ‘Oh my God, this thing is going down!’”
Sobeih and Riyadh, 24, who also declined to give his full name, said they heard unusual noises coming from the plane’s engines, but they saw no flames.
On Wednesday, there was confusion and grief at Cairo airport. Relatives and friends who had heard of the crash on radio and television arrived to find the Gulf Air offices shuttered and no one to deal with them except a few security officials in the almost deserted departure hall. Some sat, flipping worry beads, while others wept.
Relatives who had been waiting for the doomed plane to land spent most of the night in the car park outside the airport, listening to radios and hoping against hope for some positive news. Two women collapsed and were taken to hospital.
In Cairo, only a handful of relatives were at the airport. One relative tried to attack news cameramen and many complained about the lack of information on the fate of their relatives. The Gulf Air office at the airport was closed.
Many of the Egyptian relatives and friends of those who died have no passports and doubt if they can obtain emergency documents to leave on the flight which Gulf Air is providing to fly two members of each family to Bahrain to identify the dead.
The crash wiped out whole families—fathers, mothers, children and sometimes grandparents as well.
Egyptian authorities promised early this morning to work “as quickly as possible” to issue the necessary papers, but with the flight due to leave around noon, it is doubtful of all who wish to do so can travel on it. Getting a passport in Egypt normally takes weeks, if not months, and visits to several government and police departments. Egypt is especially keen to prevent draft dodgers or known Islamic extremists from travelling abroad.
Bureaucracy saved the life of at least one Egyptian. Hisham al-Husseini, 27, was turned away at the gate as he went to board the doomed plane. Officials were not satisfied that his Bahrain work permit was in order. Another wait-listed passenger was allowed on instead.
U.S., Canadian Craft Aid in Search
U.S. Navy helicopters, destroyers and an ocean-going tug with a 10-ton crane joined the nighttime search and rescue effort, 3 or 4 miles off the northern coast of Bahrain, which is headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet.
At least three U.S. Navy helicopters were taking part in the search and rescue mission, said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. There are 14 U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, including the aircraft carrier George Washington, which was docked at the port of Bahrain.U.S. officials also said two small hovercraft, as well as the USS MF Catawba, a support ship in the Gulf were assisting in the rescue mission. Three other vessels — the USS Milius, the USS Oldendorf and a Canadian ship, the HMCS Calgary — were also headed to the scene.
“Right now, they’re searching for survivors, and once they give up — I don’t want to say give up — once the search for survivors ends, then they will begin to pick up wreckage,” said Lt. John Perkins, a spokesman for the 5th Fleet.
Perkins said search and rescue efforts would continue through the night. Divers could be sent down for wreckage after the search and rescue effort.
The Bahraini navy was also using five helicopters that are night-capable and has also deployed medical teams to the airport.
Two helicopters hovered low over the site of the crash tonight with their floodlights switched on. Bodies retrieved from the scene were being ferried in ambulances to the Salmaniya hospital, the country’s largest, according to doctors.
A U.S. naval spokesman for the 5th Fleet said calm seas were helping the operation.
“The aircraft crashed in shallow water. The climate is very hot and humid but clear and the sea is calm. So the conditions are near perfect to conduct this type of operation,” he said.
ABCNEWS’ Barbara Starr and Sue Masterman, ABCNEWS.com’s Andrew Chang,The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.