CAIRO — The EgyptAir red-eye from Paris to Cairo, an Airbus A320 jetliner less than half full, had just entered Egyptian airspace early Thursday on the final part of its journey.
Suddenly the twin-engine jetliner jerked hard to the left, then hard to the right, circled and plunged 28,000 feet, disappearing from the radar screens of Greek and Egyptian air traffic controllers.
That began a day of emergency rescuers scrambling, officials issuing conflicting information and experts speculating about the fate of EgyptAir Flight 804, which carried at least 66 people from roughly a dozen nations and was presumed to have crashed into the Mediterranean Sea.
EgyptAir initially said wreckage of the plane had been found with the help of searchers from Greece, but a senior official of the airline speaking on CNN retracted that assertion hours later. Egyptian officials suggested that terrorism was a more likely cause for the disappearance than mechanical failure, but others cautioned that it was premature to make that judgment.
The loss of the flight was the second civilian aviation disaster to hit Egypt in the past seven months. It resurrected fears and speculation about the safety and security of Egyptian aviation, which has a history of lapses — as well as the specter of a security breach in Paris, where the plane took off.
The mystery of the plane’s demise also raised broader questions about the vulnerability of civilian air travel to terrorism. Flight 804 went missing against the backdrop of threats from militant extremist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, with networks linking Europe to the Middle East.
By Thursday evening, no group had claimed responsibility.
With differing reports about precisely what wreckage had been discovered, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt ordered the armed forces to “take all measures necessary” to find the remains of the plane, his office said in a statement.
The statement also said work had begun immediately “to unravel the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the Egyptian aircraft and establish its causes.”
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As news of the missing plane spread in Cairo, relatives of those aboard rushed to the airport, some overcome with grief and anger over the lack of information. “Pray for them,” said a relative of a flight attendant who had just married. “We don’t know anything.”
Earlier in the day, Egypt’s civil aviation minister, Sherif Fathi, acknowledged at a news conference that the cause might have been terrorism. Mr. Fathi said that “if you analyze the situation properly,” the possibility of “having a terror attack is higher than the possibility” of technical failure.
EgyptAir said the pilot and co-pilot had nearly 9,000 hours of flying time between them. Officials from the Interior Ministry and Cairo Airport described them as experienced fliers with no known political affiliations.
The jetliner departed Paris at 11:09 p.m. on Wednesday. The pilot spoke to Greek air traffic controllers at 2:26 a.m. and nothing seemed out of the ordinary, officials said. Three or four minutes later, the plane made its last normal radar contact.
At 2:37 a.m., shortly after entering Egyptian airspace, the plane made a 90-degree turn to the left and then a full circle to the right, first plunging to 15,000 feet from 37,000 feet and then to 9,000 feet. At that point it disappeared from radar, the Greek defense minister, Panos Kammenos, said at a news conference on Thursday afternoon.
There was also conflicting information about precisely how many passengers Flight 804 was carrying — 66 or 69. EgyptAir said early in the day that 56 passengers were aboard, along with seven crew members, and three members of airline security personnel. But three infants also were reported to have been aboard and it was unclear if they had been counted.
At least 30 of the passengers were from Egypt, according to the airline, with others from Algeria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Chad, France, Iraq, Kuwait, Portugal, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
The aircraft was delivered to EgyptAir in November 2003 and had accumulated 48,000 hours of flying time, according to data compiled by Flightradar24, an aviation website. Such aircraft are typically built to last 30 or 40 years, and there was no indication anything was mechanically amiss.
But the aircraft’s North Africa itinerary in the previous two days was possibly more worrisome. Flightradar24 data showed it had flown round trips between Cairo and Asmara, Eritrea, and between Cairo and Tunis before going to Paris. American and European officials have expressed concerns about security gaps in North African airports.
EgyptAir Flight 804 disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea on Thursday shortly before it was due to land. Here are some of the people who were on board.
By NEIL COLLIER and SHANE O’NEILL on Publish Date May 19, 2016. Photo by via Facebook. Watch in Times Video »
Officials in Egypt, who have been under intense scrutiny since a bomb brought down a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in October, killing all 224 people on board, declined to describe the events as a crash.
The aviation minister’s quick acknowledgment that terrorism might be a cause this time was in stark contrast to the government’s handling of the loss of the Russian airliner, which Egyptian officials had insisted for months could not have been the result of terrorism.
The French president, François Hollande, after speaking by telephone with President Sisi of Egypt, also raised the possibility of terrorism. “The information that we have been able to gather — the prime minister, the members of the government, and, of course, the Egyptian authorities — unfortunately confirm for us that this plane crashed at sea and has been lost,” Mr. Hollande said at the Élysée Palace.
Mr. Hollande said that “no hypothesis was being ruled out,” and that search teams from France, Greece and Egypt were hoping to recover “debris that would enable us to know the truth.”
He added, “When we have the truth, we must draw all the conclusions, whether it is an accident or another hypothesis, which everybody has in mind: the terrorist hypothesis.”
Security at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris, where Flight 804 departed, was tightened after the terrorist attacks in and around the French capital in November, and scrutiny of passengers and luggage was also stepped up in the wake of the bombing of Brussels Airport in March..
President Obama was briefed by Lisa O. Monaco, his adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, and the administration offered “support and assistance,” the White House said in a statement.
Administration officials said it was too early to say what had caused the plane to vanish. But they said they were sharing information from a terrorist watch list as well as other data with Egyptian, French and other investigators.
EgyptAir said the last radar contact with the plane had been about 2:30 a.m., when it was 175 miles off the Egyptian coast. (Greek officials put the last radar contact at a minute earlier.)
At 3:14 a.m., the Greek authorities began a search operation, deploying a C-130 military transport plane. At 4:26 a.m. — nearly two hours after the last radar contact — the plane emitted a signal, although it was not clear whether that was an emergency distress signal sent by a crew member or an automated signal from the plane’s onboard computers.
“We don’t know if the pilot had something to do with this or if it is just the plane sending it,” said Ihab Raslan, a spokesman for the Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry.
In the October crash of the Russian jetliner, the plane broke up in midair 23 minutes after takeoff from the Red Sea resort city of Sharm el Sheikh. The Islamic State, whose local affiliate is fighting the Egyptian military in the Sinai Peninsula, claimed that it had brought down the plane, an Airbus A321-200.
Relatives of passengers on the EgyptAir flight that vanished on Thursday said they had received little information about what might have happened to the plane.
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS and REUTERS on Publish Date May 19, 2016. Photo by Khaled Desouki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images. Watch in Times Video »
The crash dealt a crippling blow to Egypt’s tourism industry, which had already declined sharply in recent years. It also helped precipitate a decline in the value of the Egyptian currency in recent months.
Russia and Britain have suspended flights to Sharm el Sheikh since the crash. The Egyptian investigation has yet to officially identify the cause. But President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Mr. Sisi discussed the resumption of flights in a telephone call on May 10, according to a statement from the Kremlin.
The last major crash involving an EgyptAir plane occurred in 2002, when a Boeing 737 traveling from Cairo struck a hill near the Tunis airport, killing 18 of the 62 people on board.
In March, a hijacker wearing a fake explosives vest diverted an EgyptAir domestic flight to Cyprus, but a standoff ended with his arrest and no injuries. The Cypriot authorities later described the man, Seif Eldin Mustafa, as “psychologically disturbed.” He is currently battling extradition to Egypt.
Egypt has come under criticism in the past for its lack of transparency in aviation accidents. In 1999, an EgyptAir flight crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after takeoff from New York, killing all 217 on board.
Although American investigators concluded that the co-pilot had steered the airplane into the sea, Egypt rejected the idea of suicide and still insists that the crash was caused by an unspecified mechanical failure.