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Investigators Probe Gulf Air Crash

August 25, 2000

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) _ As Gulf Air Flight 072 approached Bahrain International Airport for a night landing, pilot Ihsan Shakeeb calmly requested a ``go around″ from air traffic controllers.

Shakeeb, an experienced pilot with more than 6,800 flying hours, circled Bahrain International Airport once, then aborted his landing attempt without explanation, according to Gulf Air officials on Friday.

Moments later, the Airbus 320 _ and its 143 passengers and crew _ disappeared from the radar. It had nose-dived into shallow waters off the north of Bahrain.

An international team of aviation experts is now trying to work out why Shakeeb aborted his first bid to land Wednesday evening, and why the plane crashed miles from the airport.

Gulf Air’s chief pilot, Hameed Ali, said Friday that investigators would examine both the speed and altitude of Shakeeb’s aborted landing.

``It is very important and I may add that intracockpit communications is even more important. We have not listened to that yet,″ Ali told a packed press conference.

But, Ali stressed, referring to the pilot, ``we have spotted no error in his approach.″

Ali refused to speculate on a possible cause of the crash, but emphasized that Shakeeb was an experienced crew member with some 6,856 hours of flying time. The minimum qualifying time for a Gulf Air pilot is 4,000 hours.

Three investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board flew into Manama on Friday evening, a civil aviation authority spokesman said. They were whisked to a meeting with Bahraini officials and were expected to start their inquiry immediately.

Six French government experts and a representative of Airbus Industries flew in on Thursday. They too were to have a key role in determining the cause of the crash. Six Airbus 320s have crashed in the last 12 years.

Airline officials said they were preparing to send both of the plane’s ``black boxes″ _ the flight data and voice cockpit recorders _ to either Europe or the United States for analysis. Spokesman Stephen Tuckwell said it could take weeks before the data is revealed.

As Bahraini flags fluttered at half-staff Friday, friends and relatives turned not to investigators, but to the island’s mosques for answers.

At the central Grand Mosque, three unidentified bodies wrapped in cloth, one belonging to a small child, lay before the faithful.

Bahraini Prime Minister Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa and other top officials stood side-by-side with 2,000 Muslims praying for the victims, 36 of whom were children.

Mourners raised a photo placard of Shakeeb at a Shiite Muslim cemetery where the pilot’s body was buried Friday. Women dressed in black chadors prayed around the grave as Shakeeb’s father, Ehtisham, sat on a wooden bench receiving condolences.

``I feel dead right now,″ said Abdullah Majeed, a Gulf Air sales executive, who described Shakeeb as a cheerful friend.

Gulf Air has offered professional counseling to the bereaved. It has also pledged $25,000 to each family who lost a relative in the crash.

Relatives sought comfort from religious leaders and counselors at a local hotel as they identified their loved ones from photographs of remains.

``It’s very difficult to see the pictures,″ said Nadr al-Khawaja, a Bahraini whose cousin, her husband and their 9-month-old baby son were killed. ``It’s very hard for the parents _ it’s torture.″

The U.S. Embassy in Bahrain was planning a private memorial service Saturday for a diplomatic courier, Seth Foti, 31, who went down with the plane.

After hours of searching Friday, U.S. Navy divers found the pouches of classified information that Foti was carrying, said Cmdr. Jeff Gradeck, spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Salvaging continued at the crash site. Dozens of divers scoured the sandy seabed in search of bits of wing and fuselage. The parts were brought to an airport hangar for reconstruction.

Gulf Air has said 135 passengers and eight crew members were on board. Sixty-three passengers were Egyptian, 34 Bahraini, 12 Saudi Arabian, nine Palestinian, six from the United Arab Emirates, three Chinese, two British and one each from Canada, Oman, Kuwait, Sudan, Australia and the United States. Two crew members were Bahrainis and one each from Oman, the Philippines, Poland, India, Morocco and Egypt.