Gulf Air airliner crashes off Bahrain, killing all 143 aboard

MANAMA, Bahrain - A Gulf Air Airbus A320 crashed into shallow Persian Gulf waters Wednesday night after circling and trying to land in Bahrain, killing all 143 people aboard, including 36 children, officials said.

All bodies were recovered and there were no survivors, Bahraini Civil Defense Commander Brigadier Abdul-Rahman Bin Rashed Al Khalifa said on state-run television.

There was no immediate word on what caused the crash. Civil aviation authorities had said searchers also recovered both flight data recorders, but later corrected that, saying only the flight data recorder had been found. The search continued for the cockpit voice recorder.

U.S. Navy helicopters, destroyers and an oceangoing tug with a 10-ton crane joined the nighttime search in about 40 feet of water three or four miles off the northern coast of Bahrain, which is headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet.

An air traffic controller at the Bahrain airport, reached by telephone, described watching the plane attempt to land.

''The plane was near the runway, but didn't land,'' he said, asking that his name not be used. ''It circled two times and the third time it crashed into the sea.''

The controller saw no flames or sign of trouble before the crash and could not immediately explain why the plane circled before landing. He said the plane's crew did not report anything out of the ordinary. He gave the time of the crash as 7:20 p.m. (12:20 p.m. EDT).

Ibrahim Al-Hamer, Bahrain's undersecretary for civil aviation, said the circling was not unusual and the crew reported nothing out of the ordinary. He said that the captain had 21 years of experience. He did not name the captain.

''I could not believe my eyes,'' said Sobeih, 27, a resident of the nearby neighborhood of Al-Fodha who saw the plane go down. ''When I saw it heading toward the sea nose down, I screamed 'Oh my God, this thing is going down.'''

Sobeih and Riyadh, 24, another Al-Fodha resident, said the plane flew unusually low over their heads heading to the runway, but took a sharp turn toward the sea.

Both men, who would not give their full names, said the plane returned minutes later flying even lower but headed straight to the sea where it crashed. They said unusual noises came from the plane's engines, but they saw no flames.

''I was in a state of shock,'' said Riyadh.

Gulf Air said in a statement that 135 passengers and eight crew members were on board GF072, an evening Cairo-Bahrain flight. Lists of passengers' names showed that 36 were under the age of 18, but they didn't appear to be traveling in any sort of group. Sixty-three passengers were Egyptian, 34 Bahraini, 12 Saudi, nine Palestinian, six from the United Arab Emirates, three Chinese, two British and one each from Canada, Oman, Kuwait, Sudan and Australia.

And one passenger was believed to be an American. A State Department official in Washington said Bahraini officials had informed them that a boarding pass indicated that a U.S. diplomatic courier was aboard. The courier's name was not immediately released.

The crew included two Bahrainis and one each from Oman, the Philippines, Poland, India, Morocco and Egypt.

Weeping relatives of passengers pleaded with policemen who threw a security ring around the airport outside the capital, Manama. Many did reach the airport, and cries and screams echoed in its halls. Dozens of men and women with reddened eyes and tears flowing down their cheeks wept loudly. Some comforted one another while others screamed out for their loved ones.

Three U.S. helicopters, 10 small boats and the USS Katawba, a tug, joined Bahraini helicopters and boats in the search. Bahraini Crown Prince Sheik Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa personally directed the effort, the U.S. military said.

The U.S. military pulled back three of the ships it had lent to the effort as the search geared down early Thursday, 5th Fleet officials said.

Relatives of passengers also gathered at the airport in Cairo. There were angry scenes when one relative tried to attack news cameramen and complained about the lack of information on the fate of the passengers.

Gulf Air is owned by Bahrain, the Gulf states of Oman and Qatar, as well as Abu Dhabi, the largest of seven sheikdoms making up the United Arab Emirates. Based in Bahrain, it flies to 53 international destinations.

Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the emir of Bahrain, declared three days of mourning and said a committee of Bahraini and foreign experts would investigate the crash. In France, Airbus Industrie said it was dispatching a team of specialists to Bahrain to help in the investigation. Al-Hamer, the civil aviation official, said Bahrain has asked the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board for assistance.

The Airbus plane, delivered to Gulf Air in September 1994, had accumulated about 17,177 flight hours in some 13,848 flights, the Airbus statement said.

In January, an Airbus A310 owned by Kenya Airways crashed into Atlantic Ocean shortly after takeoff from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to Lagos, Nigeria. Ten people survived, and 169 died. An Air Inter Airbus A320 crashed in 1992 in Strasbourg, France, killing 87 people.

Gulf Air's most recent previous disaster came in 1983, when a 737-200 crashed during approach to Abu Dhabi after a bomb exploded in the baggage compartment. The crash killed all six crew members and 105 of 111 passengers.


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