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Weather Delays Black Box Search

November 6, 1999

NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) _ Investigators looking into the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 were encouraged by pinging sounds from the plane’s ``black boxes″ that were so loud technicians aboard a ship tore off their earphones _ a sign they are near the crucial recorders.

But the capture of the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder had to wait another day as high seas forced Navy crews to delay lifting a giant robot off the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean late Friday.

The search was suspended at 7 p.m. when the waves reached higher than 10 feet. Ted Lopakiewicz, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the search would resume once the weather improved, possibly today.

The contents of the recorders could explain why the Boeing 767 heading from New York to Cairo plummeted into the sea early Sunday from 33,000 feet, killing 217 people.

Before the search was suspended, the Deep Drone _ a remote-controlled vehicle the size of a minivan _ captured the distinct pinging sound emitted by the boxes 270 feet down shortly after it was lowered into the sea Friday morning.

The first glimpse of the wreckage site some 270 feet below the ocean surface showed only small pieces rather than a jumbled heap of airplane parts.

Technicians on the USS Grapple found the pinger signals to be so ``loud they had to take their earphones out,″ said Capt. Bert Marsh, Navy supervisor of salvage.

They maneuvered the remote-controlled robot to within 20 feet of where they suspect the black boxes rested, entangled in wreckage or buried in silt.

They still have not seen the black boxes because visibility became blurred each time they tried to move anything out of the way.

``Every time you start to dig into anything, you immediately have a puff of smoke come up,″ Marsh said. ``You have to let the current clear that out and then go in again.″

The Deep Drone was expected to retrieve the boxes without the aid of divers because it can use huge claws or a crane to lift the boxes or even tons of wreckage that may contain the small recording devices.

Once pulled out of the water, the boxes would be taken to Washington for analysis by the NTSB. The investigation is exploring all possibilities of the cause, including human error, mechanical failure and sabotage.

Authorities have found only one body and do not expect to find other bodies intact. The state medical examiner’s office hopes to identify remains through DNA matches with relatives.

Relatives were to be taken today to look at the wreckage recovered thus far. The debris is being housed at a former Naval base in Quonset Point.

State Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse said he will file a petition on Monday seeking authority to issue ``certificates of presumption of death″ for the victims. The certificates would allow relatives to execute wills, collect life insurance benefits and pursue legal claims without waiting until remains are identified.

Also Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, about 150 mourners attended a Muslim funeral service in a makeshift mosque setup at a Newport hotel.

At mosques throughout Egypt on Friday, clergy hailed the 217 victims as martyrs who went to heaven. Islamic scholars say those who die by drowning are considered martyrs.

Separate prayers were held at the Armed Forces Mosque in Cairo for the 33 military officers on board, most of them returning from training in the United States. Another sermon was given at Cairo International Airport for the flight’s 18 crew members.

A larger service for victims of all faiths is planned for Sunday.

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