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Cause of Gulf Air crash still a mystery

Pilot reported no problems; U.S. team to aid probe

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MANAMA, Bahrain — As grieving relatives prepared to bury their dead, international investigators began today to probe the mystery of why a Gulf Air Airbus plunged into the sea off Bahrain Wednesday, killing all 143 people on board.

The pilot of Flight GF072 from Cairo made several attempts to land before the crash but reported no technical problems and spoke normally, an airline pilot said.

Hamad Ali, Gulf Air's chief pilot for the A320 fleet, told a news conference that the pilot had been cleared to land when he was seven nautical miles from the runway.

"All indications at this time appeared to be normal. He continued the descent until one nautical mile, when the pilot requested a go-around. The reasons for this are not known.

"He did the go-around as requested and approximately one nautical mile from touchdown the plane disappeared from the radar. The whole communication with the control tower was normal, including the pilot's tone of voice.

"I listened to the recorded conversation between the control tower and the pilot. There was nothing indicating that the pilot was under stress. His voice and his performance were very natural," Ali said.

He said the 38-year-old pilot, who joined Gulf Air in 1979, had 6,856 flying hours. A pilot averaged 600-700 flying hours a year, he said.

Several of the families of the victims attended the news conference, but some were escorted out when they started crying.

Two days after the crash, the grief-stricken families are going deeper into shock, psychologists and trauma doctors said. Seeing photographs of their dead kin Thursday was the peak of their grief, they told Reuters.

"We saw many hysterical cases last (Thursday) night," said Egyptian trauma doctor Emad Shoary, who accompanied relatives of the 63 Egyptian victims on the flight from Cairo Thursday.

"There are many problems. Some diabetic people are refusing to eat. People are collapsing with shock," he said. "The families will need counseling for a long time to come."

Many of the families huddled in the foyer of their Manama hotel, all dressed in black mourning clothes. Some sought solace in each other's arms. Others stared with blank eyes into the distance and many cried silently. Many were wrapped in blankets as Bahraini and Egyptian doctors tried to help them.

Egyptian Kamal Boutrous Gaad lost his 33-year-old cousin.

"He was flying to Bahrain to take up a job. It was the first time he had ever left Egypt," he said, choking back tears.

Gulf Air's Chief Executive Sheikh Ahmed bin Saif al-Nahayan told the news conference: "U.S. investigators are arriving tonight, and we expect the investigation to start immediately. Until it is completed, Gulf Air cannot speculate on the reasons for the accident."

The U.S. team from the National Transportation Safety Board and a representative of the Federal Aviation Administration will join experts already on the spot from Bahrain, Oman and Airbus Industrie. Ibrahim Abdullah al-Hammar, Transport Ministry Undersecretary for Civil Aviation, told Bahrain television Friday that Bahraini officials met the Airbus team Thursday.

He said a meeting of regional experts as well as the Airbus and U.S. teams would take place Friday night, but the official investigation was due to start Saturday.

The airline's president Sheikh Ahmed said the plane's black boxes, recovered from shallow waters, had not been opened yet.

A Gulf Air statement said: "The black box flight data recorder cannot be opened in Bahrain where it is currently under guard with civil aviation affairs and it will be sent for examination and interpretation in Europe or America."

Gulf Air said it had no evidence that an engine on the Airbus, powered by two CFM56-5 engines built by General Electric Co. and France's state-owned SNECMA, had caught fire, as reported by witnesses in Bahrain and initially by Bahrain television.

"Gulf Air's position is that there is no evidence it has seen that there was a fire in the engine. Three Gulf Air employees saw the incident and none of them reported there was anything unusual about the plane," a spokesman told Reuters.

As rescue teams continued to retrieve mangled pieces of the plane, suitcases and clothing from the water, relatives of the victims of the crash, the sixth and most deadly accident involving an Airbus A320 since the sophisticated plane entered service in April 1988, began claiming the bodies of their loved ones to take them home for burial.

Gulf Air said it was planning to immediately pay families $25,000 as part of the compensation for each victim. The announcement angered some families.

"How can they say a person's life is worth $25,000?" one relative told another.