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Monday, 12 November, 2001, 23:08 GMT
What went wrong?
Smoke billows from the New York crash scene
Smoke billows from the New York crash scene
By BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani

The investigation into what made American Airlines Flight 587 crash in New York minutes after take off is only just beginning - but there will be a methodical attempt to establish every single detail of what went wrong.

Firstly, investigators will be trying to establish the basic cause for the crash.

The investigation will be headed by the US's National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which conducts all inquiries into air crashes.

Firefighters tackled an inferno
Firefighters tackled an inferno
It has a forward team at the scene of the crash in the Rockaways area of New York, to be backed up by a second "Go Team" who will establish the main investigation centre.

The NTSB says all information it has received so far points to an accident.

Investigation priorities

The cockpit voice recorder has already been recovered, and the search continues for the flight data recorder. These will give key detail on aircraft flight controls, engine performance and readouts on other mechanical systems.

Investigators will be trying to match up data from the recorders with eyewitness reports, radio communications and air traffic radar information.

In particular, the flight data recorder could allow analysts to distinguish between a bomb and the less spontaneous noise of mechanical failure.

The NTSB team will already be trying to quickly take the investigation down the right path:

  • Catastrophic failure following mechanical or structural fault
  • Crash after sabotage or terrorist attack
Known facts

Nobody yet knows for certain whether it was mechanical failure or terrorist act that brought down Flight 587. But three key elements of the initial evidence suggest that an accident is the more likely of the two:

  • Eyewitness reports
  • Communications with the aircraft
  • Intelligence on possible threats

New York governor George Pataki added that the pilot dumped fuel into the sea shortly before the crash, suggesting he was aware of a serious mechanical failure aboard the plane.

Eyewitness reports

Eyewitness accounts of air crashes are often contradictory and confused as events happen too quickly for people to register exactly what they saw.

The first reports to come out of the Queens area of New York suggested that there may have been an explosion on the aircraft - though it is unclear whether people believe they saw an explosion or heard one.

The engine landed four blocks from the jet
The engine landed four blocks from the jet
If they heard an explosion, it may have been engine noise as the aircraft came down or the sound of the actual impact itself.

So far there are no reports of the aircraft having come down in flames or of an explosion.

More importantly, the second report to come from the scene was that an engine separated from a wing and crashed into the neighbourhood near to the main crash site.

This engine has been found and may lead to investigators deciding that catastrophic mechanical failure is the more likely scenario.

One of the most well-established facts of aircraft disasters is that takeoff is the most critical time when things can go wrong.

During these first minutes the pressures upon an aircraft are immense as it uses its maximum power to takeoff and reach a safe speed and altitude.

Communications with the aircraft

Flight 587 took off en route for Santo Domingo at 9.13am local time (1413GMT). Its original take off slot was reportedly delayed due to a technical fault, though it is not known what that problem was.

After four minutes air traffic controllers lost contact - the time of the crash.

The White House has already said that there were "no unusual communications" from the pilot during those four brief minutes.

Intelligence on possible threats

This does not rule out sabotage - but it may make it more likely that the aircraft was not hijacked.

The FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration have stressed that there is no indication the crash was anything other than an accident.

In Washington, a senior administration official said that no credible threats against airplanes had been received.

The BBC's Fergus Walsh
"The A300 has a good but not perfect safety record"
Marion Blakely, Chairwoman, NTSB
"We are launching a major investigation"
Aviation industry analyst Robert Hewson
"Inside the engines they'll be looking for signs of damage"

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