WASHINGTON - A phrase, which has been interpreted to mean an EgyptAir co-pilot deliberately crashed the jetliner, was not on the cockpit voice recorder tape, an anonymous source said.
On Wednesday, a federal law enforcement official, reading from a document, said that, just before the autopilot was turned off and the fatal dive began, the crew member in the co-pilot's seat was recorded as saying: ''I made my decision now. I put my faith in God's hands.''
A government official, who demanded anonymity, said the first of those two sentences - the one about making a decision - is not heard on the tape and word of it appeared to have resulted from confusion among investigators. This government official could not say whether there was some other first sentence that has since been translated differently as experts went over the tape this week and electronically enhanced it to prepare an exact transcript.
James Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said speculation about words captured on the cockpit voice recorder has ''caused pain for the families'' of the crash victims and ''done a disservice to the longstanding friendship between the people of the United States of America and Egypt.''
Although he did not say so, what Hall seemed to have in mind was a widely quoted statement attributed to the relief co-pilot. Hall brushed aside questions about the specific words on the cockpit recording.
But today, Hall and other government officials have warned all week that there were varying interpretations of what is heard on the tape.
As for the investigation of the Oct. 31 crash, Hall said that Egyptian and U.S. investigators were cooperating in the effort to determine exactly what was said on the tapes, which he said typically contain ''what are very private and sometimes very painful conversations.''
Hall added that the NTSB had purchased Arabic language software and loaded it into investigators' computers to facilitate the translation. He would not say when work would be done or when transcripts might be released.
Chiefly, however, Hall focused on what he called speculation on ''second- third- and fourth-hand'' sources about what the recording revealed.
Hall, speaking to reporters, said that speculation led to ''headlines with information that is just flat wrong.''
The crash of the Boeing 767 off the Massachusetts coast killed all 217 aboard, including two pilots and two relief pilots.
Hall said the task of getting exact words from the cockpit tapes ''is a painstaking process, compounded by the fact that it is almost entirely in Arabic.''
''Since the wreckage is on the bottom of the ocean,'' he said, ''the factual information (about the crash) has of necessity been literally reduced to radar data and flight safety records.''
Only small bits of the plane have been recovered, and the recovery process has been slowed by bad weather. Hall said today that another Navy vessel will travel from Portugal to assist in bringing more plane wreckage and human remains to the surface. The ship should arrive around Dec. 1, and the recovery could go on for weeks after that, he said.
Since Hall himself previously discounted mechanical failure or weather-related factors as causes of the crash, attention turned to cockpit actions and the words of the crew, especially relief co-pilot Gameel el-Batouty.
The so-called black box containing the cockpit voice recorder was recovered after the box containing the flight data recorder.
The flight data recorder showed an unusual sequence of events, including that the plane's autopilot was disconnected at 33,000 feet. Batouty was apparently alone in the cockpit.
Eight seconds later, the tail flaps, or ''elevators,'' were moved to push the plane's nose down. The aircraft began a steep descent.
Next, the recorder revealed the cockpit doors opened. Investigators believe the pilot, Capt. Ahmed Mahmoud el-Habashy, returned to the cockpit. Investigators believe he tried to regain control of the aircraft because he is heard to say, ''Pull with me. Help me, pull with me.''
Thirty-five seconds later, the elevators were moved to opposite directions. One pilot may have been trying to right the plane while another pilot's controls were pitching the plane toward the sea.
U.S. investigators apparently found the reported phrases suspicious enough that they were set to turn over the case to the FBI. Earlier this week, Hall said that decision was delayed while a more detailed analysis by investigator, linguists and others is undertaken.
Many Egyptians, who pepper everyday conversation with expressions of religious faith, were not convinced that the cockpit recording pointed to suicide.