CAIRO—Nearly four hours into a flight from Paris to Cairo, an Egyptian passenger plane with 66 people aboard abruptly swerved and plunged thousands of feet before vanishing from radar screens over the Mediterranean Sea, officials said.
Investigators said it was too soon to rule out any possible causes for Thursday’s disaster, but suggested that terrorism was more likely than a technical failure.
EgyptAir Flight 804, an Airbus A320 carrying 56 passengers and 10 crew members, left Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport for Cairo at about 11:10 p.m. on Wednesday.
Greek air-traffic controllers were the last to make contact with the plane, at about 2:30 a.m., as it passed over the island of Kea, just south of the Greek mainland.
The pilot did not mention any problems, Kostas Litzerakis, the head of Greece’s civil aviation department, told reporters.
Shortly after entering Egyptian airspace, the plane made a 90-degree turn to the left, then a 360-degree circle to the right, dropping from 37,000 feet to 15,000 feet, Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos said at a news briefing in Athens. It disappeared from radar screens at about 10,000 feet, he said.
At 2:50 a.m., air-traffic controllers confirmed they had lost contact with the plane, Egypt’s Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathi said at a news conference in Cairo.
He cautioned that it was too soon to draw conclusions about what happened to the plane. But he acknowledged that the possibility of a terrorism attack was “higher than the possibility of having a technical failure.”
The calamity immediately brought to mind the disappearance of a Russian Airbus over the Sinai Peninsula last October, a crash that Moscow said was probably the result of a bomb.
A senior US law-enforcement official who was briefed on Thursday’s crash also said investigators were leaning toward a terrorist act but had not ruled out other scenarios.
Investigators were examining several possible reasons for the abrupt turns, but the theories all had holes that might not be filled until the wreckage and cockpit voice and data recorders are retrieved, according to the US official, who was not authorized to comment publicly.
A bomb may have exploded inside the aircraft, but an explosion at that altitude probably would have caused the plane to disintegrate, the official said. Radar data suggested the jetliner remained intact at least until it reached 10,000 feet.
A hijacker also could have tried to commandeer the aircraft, resulting in a struggle in the cockpit. But that situation probably would have generated a distress call.
It was also possible that a pilot might have intentionally crashed the plane. That’s what the US National Transportation Safety Board concluded happened in 1999, when an EgyptAir flight from Los Angeles to Cairo crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about 60 miles south of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, killing all 217 people onboard. Egyptian authorities blamed an unspecified mechanical failure.
US counterterrorism officials were running the names on the flight manifest through terrorist watch lists to see whether any of the passengers or crew may have extremist ties, another US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.
President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, briefed him at the White House early on Thursday.
In France the suddenness of the aircraft’s disappearance also raised suspicions of foul play. Jean-Paul Troadec, former president of the French air accident investigation bureau, told Europe 1 radio that it was unlikely to have been a mechanical failure.
“There’s a strong possibility of an explosion onboard from a bomb or a suicide bomber,” Troadec said.
“We could also consider a missile, which is what happened to the Malaysia Airlines aircraft in July 2014. If the crew didn’t send an alert signal, it’s because what happened was very sudden.”
“A problem with an engine or a technical fault would not produce an immediate accident,” he added. “In this case, the crew did not react, which makes us think of an explosion.”
A Greek Defense Ministry source said it was also investigating an account from a merchant ship captain of seeing a “flame in the sky” about 130 nautical miles south of the Greek island of Karpathos.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault was more guarded in his assessment. After visiting passengers’ families at a crisis center near Charles de Gaulle Airport, Ayrault called for solidarity and compassion for the “anguished families” and said speculation and theorizing should stop.
“We have to remain extremely careful before commenting or expressing theories about what happened,” he said.
Jean Serrat, a former French commercial pilot, told France’s BFMTV there were only three realistic hypotheses: The aircraft was hit by a missile, there was a “major technical incident” that led to it exploding midflight, or something exploded inside.
“One thing is certain, it happened suddenly. There was no message, no signal.… The pilots had no time to say anything, it happened so quickly.” French President François Hollande called an emergency meeting at the Elysee Palace. Prime Minister Manuel Valls said “no theory can be ruled out” as a cause of the accident.
Hollande spoke to his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, early Thursday. Afterward, Hollande’s office said the two countries would cooperate to find out what had happened.
Egyptian and Greek defense authorities mounted a search in the Mediterranean.
At Cairo International Airport, anguished relatives of the plane’s passengers and crew gathered at dawn hoping for news about their loved ones.
One woman, in tears, emerged from the building with her husband. She said that her son-in-law was one of the security personnel on the plane.
“We don’t know anything,” she said. “We don’t understand. We don’t know what happened to the plane.”
A woman waiting with her husband, son and daughter collapsed, overwhelmed, into her daughter’s arms.
“We are providing families of the passengers with all the information available to us,” Fathi said. “If someone wants to know now what happened to the plane, we can’t tell them since we still do not know.”
Of the 56 passengers, 30 were Egyptian, 15 were from France, two from Iraq, and one each from Britain, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Chad, Portugal, Algeria, Kuwait and Canada. At least two babies and an older child were on the flight.
No Americans were listed on the passenger manifest. But US officials were checking further to confirm that.
Adding to the families’ anguish were a series of conflicting statements issued by Egyptian and Greek authorities during the course of the day.
EgyptAir initially said that the plane sent out a distress signal two hours after the last confirmed radar contact, but Fathi said this was an error and that no emergency calls were made from the plane.
There were also reports that life vests and plastic debris had been found about 200 nautical miles southeast of Crete.
As night fell, EgyptAir issued a brief statement saying wreckage from the missing plane had been found near the Greek island of Karpathos. But Greek officials said none of the debris found so far came from an aircraft and the airline’s vice chairman, Ahmed Adel, later told CNN that the information it had received about the find was not accurate.
EgyptAir said the plane had gone into service in 2003 and was on its fifth flight of the day. It had flown into Tunisia and Eritrea earlier in the day Wednesday. The airline said the captain had more than 6,000 flying hours, including 2,100 on the A320. The co-pilot had 2,766.
EgyptAir said there was no freight, special cargo or dangerous goods on board.
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, a Virginia-based aerospace research firm, said the Airbus 320s are reliable aircraft and among the most common planes used in air travel. The plane that is missing went into service in 2003, which is not that old for a jet.
“That’s a sweet spot. It was nowhere near being toward the end of its life. It’s a classic young middle-aged aircraft,” Aboulafia said. “There’s absolutely no reason for it to do this unless there was an onboard struggle or an explosion.”
A statement from Airbus said the aircraft involved was delivered to EgyptAir from the production line in November 2003. It had accumulated about 48,000 flight hours.
In March, an EgyptAir plane was hijacked and diverted to Cyprus. A man who admitted to the hijacking and is described by Cypriot authorities as “psychologically unstable” is in custody in that country.
In October, a Russian Airbus A321 operated by Metrojet crashed in the Sinai Peninsula, killing 224 people on board. Russia said the plane was probably downed by a bomb, and the militant group Islamic State claimed responsibility.