MANAMA, Bahrain — Aviation experts began an investigation Saturday into the crash of Gulf Air Flight 072, examining the plane's tail that still juts out of the sea like a gravestone for the 143 passengers and crew who perished.
The United States is leading the team of more than 20 inspectors from Bahrain, France, Egypt and Oman. Their job will be to piece together clues from the wreckage to determine why the Airbus 320, flying from Cairo, crashed Wednesday in near-perfect conditions just off Bahrain's coast.
An eight-man advance team began Saturday by photographing an expanse of sea littered with scraps. Mobile phones and clothing bobbed in the water, although most personal effects had been retrieved by divers from Bahrain and the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. "We're going to map out the wreckage area and where the pieces are," said one of three investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. "Obviously, then we still have to pull the stuff out."
Nineteen pieces, several still in the sea, have been logged as "significant" so far. "Time is now of the essence because of the sand," said Bahraini Col. James Windsor, who is coordinating the salvage work. "If you don't recover them in the next few days, it will cover up the pieces."
The investigators, in addition to an Airbus Industries representative, will have other evidence to rely on, including the plane's flight data and voice cockpit recorders. The recorders were to be flown to Washington on Saturday night for analysis.
The team hopes to pinpoint what happened between the time pilot Ihsan Shakeeb aborted his landing at Manama's airport without explanation and the plane's dive into the sea 60 seconds later.
Gulf Air's chief pilot Hameed Ali has said investigators would examine the speed and altitude of Shakeeb's aborted landing as part of their probe. But, he stressed, "we have spotted no error in (Shakeeb's) approach."
Earlier, caskets wrapped in blue plaid cloth were loaded aboard a Gulf Air Boeing 767 bound for Cairo. Sixty-four Egyptians were killed in the crash, and 56 of the bodies headed home Saturday, along with about 100 relatives who had come to Bahrain to identify them.
Some 200 more grieving mourners were at the Cairo airport when the plane arrived. Women in black wailed as the victims' names were called out. Relatives were led to ambulances taking the bodies to separate burial services.
Some men and women ran after the vehicles, desperate for a final look.
"This is the hardest thing on earth for us," said Ali Mohammed Hassan, whose cousin, Reda Hassan, died on the flight.
Not all the relatives and friends of the 64 Egyptians killed in the crash were able to say farewell and bury their loved ones Saturday: Eight of the Egyptian victims had been misidentified in Bahrain, and the whereabouts of their bodies were still being pinpointed. Many victims were dismembered or badly disfigured by the plane's impact in the sea, making it very difficult to identify them from photographs.
Wafaei Aziz burst into tears as he told how his cousin's wife, Nevine, and her son, Robert, who were Christians, had received Muslim funeral rites in Bahrain. Nevine had been taken for a Bahraini woman and Robert identified as a Palestinian, Aziz said.
"We don't even know what happened to those bodies. We heard they buried her at Bahrain," said Wafaei, who waited at the airport for more than an hour in the hope of finding his relatives among the bodies returned.
Muslim and Christian clerics moved among the relatives, offering comfort and support.
But some mourners were inconsolable. One woman was slapping her cheeks in a gesture of grief and yelling: "Oh! Sister, you left me. I don't have anyone but you!"
Among those who were buried Saturday was Yehia Abdou Shalaby. An ambulance took his body to a mosque, where it was washed, and then to a cemetery in northwest Cairo. Relatives and friends wailed and cried as Shalaby's corpse, wrapped in white cloth, was lifted out of the coffin and lowered into a grave.
Gulf Air has said 135 passengers and eight crew members were on board Flight 072. In addition to the Egyptians aboard, there were 36 Bahrainis, 12 Saudi Arabians, nine Palestinians, six people from the United Arab Emirates, three Chinese, two British, two Omanis and one person from each of the United States, Canada, Kuwait, Sudan, Australia, the Philippines, Poland, India and Morocco.
The U.S. Embassy in Bahrain held a private memorial service Saturday for the American victim, Seth Foti, a 31-year-old diplomatic courier. Foti's body was expected to arrive in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, and a funeral is being planned in his hometown of Browntown, Va.