Published Monday, November 1, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

The Crash of EgyptAir Flight 990

Bay Area passengers on doomed jetliner
Of 217 aboard, no survivors are expected; race for clues is under way

Mercury News Staff and Wire Reports

NEW YORK — Two Bay Area residents were among 217 people feared dead in the crash of an EgyptAir jetliner that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after taking off from New York for Cairo, Egypt, early Sunday.

Authorities, who found one body and a flotsam of wreckage about 60 miles southeast of the Massachusetts island of Nantucket on Sunday, will resume looking today for any clues that could help explain why EgyptAir Flight 990 — a Boeing 767 — plummeted from an altitude of 33,000 feet.

It was confirmed late Sunday that at least two Bay Area residents were aboard Flight 990. The state-owned air carrier told the families that it didn't expect any survivors.

San Jose resident Kurt Schwenk, 39, who had traveled the globe, was on his way to a vacation in Egypt. With him were his girlfriend, who lived in Los Altos, her parents, her roommate, his mother, Erica Schwenk, and his sister Mitzi Schwenk and her husband, William Jackson.

Schwenk's sister, Heidi Schwenk of Palo Alto, said an airline representative called her Sunday and confirmed that her brother's entourage was aboard Flight 990.

``The airline said they don't expect any survivors,'' Heidi Schwenk said. ``We know they're gone.''

Friends recalled Kurt Schwenk's passion for adventure and his bigger-than-life personality. ``He lived life to the fullest and he always had a smile,'' said Bill Joos, a close friend.

A manager at Palm Computing Inc. of Santa Clara, Schwenk was an amateur rugby player and an avid reader of history who loved traveling the globe. His recent trips included visits to Ireland, Nepal and Spain.

``He just learned so much about life and about himself doing that,'' Heidi Schwenk said Sunday night. ``Traveling taught him things about himself that he might not have learned staying in one place.''

She said she took solace in knowing that her mother and brother died en route to doing what they both loved best.

``It's been very difficult — unbelievable — one of those tragedies that shouldn't happen,'' she said. ``It's an accident that no one should ever have to endure.''

Meanwhile, Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Administration, cautioned against speculating about the cause of the crash.

``You will undoubtedly hear many reports of what might have caused the crash of Flight 990,'' he said. ``All of those reports will be speculative. We do not know at this point what caused the crash.''

The aircraft — a twin-engine, wide-body Boeing 767-300ER carrying 199 passengers and 18 crew members — left John F. Kennedy International Airport at 1:19 a.m. EST Sunday on a scheduled 11-hour non-stop flight to Cairo. While takeoff was late, everything seemed normal.

Out-of-control dive

But at 1:50 a.m., with the plane cruising at 33,000 feet in a clear night sky lit by a half-moon, something went terribly wrong, and the aircraft went into a plummeting, out-of-control dive. There was no distress call from the cockpit, the last voice contact with ground controllers having been routine. Two minutes later, the plane vanished from radar screens.

It was unclear what happened: whether an explosion had erupted, whether some mechanical failure had occurred, or even whether the aircraft was in one piece as it went down, aviation officials said. What was known was that the jetliner, without warning, plunged out of the sky and into the dark, rolling sea about 60 miles southeast of the Massachusetts island of Nantucket.

Federal officials said that radar sweeps at 12-second intervals showed that the aircraft fell from 33,000 feet to 19,100 feet — a drop of 13,900 feet — in 36 seconds, indicating that it was falling ``like a rock,'' as one aviation expert put it. The rate of descent was more than 23,000 feet per minute, while a normal descent is 1,500 to 2,000 feet a minute.

Even if the plane was still intact as it fell, aviation experts said, the high-speed impact with the water would have shattered it, and the chance that anyone survived was small. The water was a chilly 58 degrees, and about 250 feet deep, a cod and tuna ground that would have been dotted with fishing boats and lobstermen in early October but was all but deserted early Sunday.

Coast Guard rescue ships swarmed to the scene, followed by helicopters and reconnaissance planes. As dawn broke, one body and a flotsam of wreckage — none with burn marks that might have suggested an explosion — were found adrift in the choppy sea. Throughout the day, officials insisted that they were still seeking survivors, but the grim search seemed all but hopeless.

``I want to re-emphasize our focus, and that is a continued effort to find victims who may still be alive,'' Rear Adm. Richard Larrabee of the Coast Guard said at a late-afternoon news conference in Boston. ``This is still a search-and-rescue case, and we are very mindful of the families, the trauma they are going through, and making every effort to keep them informed.''

Sunday's crash came less than two weeks after the hijacking of an EgyptAir flight between Istanbul, Turkey, and Cairo, Egypt, on Oct. 19. That ended peacefully in Germany where the hijacker was overpowered; none of the 46 passengers was harmed.

Although the FBI and other intelligence agencies began checking on the possibility that Sunday's crash was the result of sabotage, President Clinton and other officials said there was no immediate indication of foul play.

``I think it's better if people draw no conclusions until we know something,'' said Clinton, who called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to offer condolences and U.S. assistance.

EgyptAir Chairman Mohammed Fahim Rayan was asked about reports that the Federal Aviation Administration had warned EgyptAir of a terrorist threat.

``We take all precautions, and we have plenty of warnings from everybody, including the FAA,'' he replied.

Alan Lewis, chief executive of a Boston-based travel agency, Grand Circle Corp., said the plane was carrying a group of 54 people — all over age 50 — bound for a 14-day drip to Egypt and the Nile. He said most of the travelers on the flight, which originated in Los Angeles, were from Colorado, Arizona and the Pacific Northwest.

At Cairo International Airport, in one corner of the makeshift information center, a man collapsed into a chair, wailing: ``My son, my son.'' One woman was already planning a funeral for her sister. One man stood at the airport window, staring at the planes and crying his son's name: ``Ahmed, Ahmed.''

It was the fourth time in three years that a major search operation was launched in the region for a plane lost at sea. The series of crashes began with TWA Flight 800 off Long Island in July 1986, followed by Swissair Flight 111 off Nova Scotia in September 1998, and the single-engine plane carrying John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and her sister off Martha's Vineyard in July.

Not hurried

Authorities said there had been ample time for the plane to be inspected and serviced before takeoff, and that all checked and carry-on luggage had been carefully examined.

Only one passenger got off in New York. That passenger was Edward D. McLaughlin, vice president of a company named Family Enterprise Institute, which does grief and bereavement counseling for EgyptAir. He had been in Los Angeles for a speech concerning air crashes and grief counseling, said Robert Boyle, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

According to Boyle, the FBI questioned McLaughlin, but there was no indication that he had any involvement in the crash.

While the search and investigation went on, authorities set in motion an all-too-familiar drill to care for, counsel and inform relatives.

At JFK Airport, the Ramada Inn was turned into an information center. Boyle said that the Port Authority, the Red Cross, EgyptAir and other agencies were doing everything they could for the families, including taking them to mosques to pray.

In Los Angeles, 149 Red Cross counselors were on call to help any relatives needing it.

Mercury News Staff Writer Joshua Kwan and Angela Couloumbis, Thomas Ginsberg, Nita Lelyveld and Mark Schogol of Knight Ridder News Service as well as Mercury News wire services contributed to this report.

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