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Authorities Probe Tunisia Crash

May 9, 2002

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TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) _ Aviation authorities are trying to understand how an EgyptAir plane slammed into a hillside near Tunis but didn’t explode, and how 14 people were killed but some were able to walk away from the severed fuselage unharmed.

EgyptAir officials and investigators from Tunisia and Egypt visited the rocky, brush-covered Nahli hillside Wednesday where the Boeing 737 with 62 people aboard hit and skidded to a halt Tuesday amid heavy fog, rain and winds blowing in from the Sahara desert.

Much of the debris _ a novel from ``The Lords of Rings″ series, scattered life vests, a woman’s high heel shoe _ had not yet been cleared away.

Dozens were injured. Officials spoke to survivors of the crash at hospitals, where patients, some suffering from broken bones, described the ordeal they lived through on the flight from Cairo to Tunisia’s capital.

During heavy turbulence, the crew asked passengers to fasten their seat belts and take a deep breath if they were nervous, and also reassured passengers that a loud noise they heard was merely the landing gear descending, passengers said. Later, they felt the shock of touchdown.

``I looked out the window and saw that we were crashing,″ said an Algerian passenger, Rafik Ghimouz.

``The plane slid and slid; it was horrible,″ the 37-year-old businessman said. When it stopped, ``I turned around, and I saw there was nothing left behind me.″

``I had been sure that I would die. But I saw that I was alive. I lived through the worst thing you can live through. A nightmare.″

Many of those who lived were seated in the front of the plane, survivors said. The rear was severed.

Tunisian aviation officials suggested that rough weather conditions may have led to the crash, though they stressed that investigations were just beginning. No technical problems were apparent before the plane disappeared from radar screens, they said. Search teams found the flight recorders and handed them over for study.

The plane crashed in an isolated area, leading many to wonder if the pilot had purposely veered away from nearby homes.

The pilot, Achraf Ahmed Abdelal, died.

While some witnesses said the pilot may have emptied the plane’s fuel tanks or flown in circles to use up fuel and prevent a fire, saving lives, the transport minister denied that possibility.

``We can’t explain why the plane didn’t explode,″ Tunisian Transport Minister Houcine Chouk said at a news conference late Wednesday.

At one hospital, five of the injured rested in a muggy, darkened room while doctors held X-rays up to the window, studying fractures. A man with rough, reddish bruises on his face slept quietly while others spoke to reporters.

Mohamad Tawfik, an Egyptian financial consultant, described how he was able to climb out of the broken plane, despite searing pain in his arm. He later learned it was fractured.

Tawfik said his Muslim faith was helping him cope with the ordeal.

``It makes me stronger to believe in God,″ he said, speaking in English. ``When I got out, I thought, now I have to do good for other people.″

The Tunisian Health Ministry and EgyptAir said that 14 people had died. Maher Fathallah, the Egyptian ambassador in Tunis, said those dead were 7 Egyptians, 6 Tunisians and a Jordanian. Officials lowered the death toll Wednesday from 15, saying they had counted one body twice. On Tuesday, they had given the death toll as 18.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak expressed his ``great sorrow″ for the victims, according to a presidential statement carried by Egypt’s Middle East News Agency on Wednesday.

Update hourly