Inside the FBI: Remembering EgyptAir Flight 990
October 31, 2019
The FBI commemorates the 217 people killed when EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Massachusetts 20 years ago Halloween morning.
Mollie Halpern: It was early Halloween morning, a Sunday, in 1999.
Special Agent Scott Robbins of the FBI’s Boston Field Office was sleeping when his wife, who was awake feeding their infant, woke him with the news of an airplane crash.
The news was reporting that a plane had crashed into the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean about 60 miles south of Nantucket, Massachusetts.
Several hours later, Scott was one of the many FBI employees who were called in to respond to a command post at Quonset Point, Rhode Island.
At the scene, it was apparent that all 217 people on board EgyptAir Flight 990 had been killed.
Wreckage from the Boeing 767, which departed from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City bound for Cairo International Airport in Egypt, was already being pulled from the sea for processing.
As one of the four leaders of the Evidence Response Team, or ERT, it was Scott’s mission to design a way to process, protect, and preserve all of the recovered debris on the dock.
Scott Robbins: This was a fully loaded flight for an overseas trip. So, there was quite a lot of fuel on board. So, all that debris that was brought back reeked of jet fuel, very pungent odor of fuel. So all of that was coated in, in jet fuel; it stunk really bad. But they brought that back to the dock and laid it out and tried to start an assessment as to what happened.
Halpern: What had happened?
The crash raised questions about possible terrorism.
More than 900 FBI employees had recently investigated the 1998 American Embassy Bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Those attacks, which killed 224 people, were linked to al Qaeda.
At the time of the Flight 990 crash, Barry Mawn was the special agent in charge of the Boston Office and says the FBI investigated the case with the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB.
Barry Mawn: It was a very big investigation and a tragic incident at the same time. And it immediately raised concerns that potentially this was a criminal act or a terrorist act. We initially thought this could be a continuation by al Qaeda.
There was always at the back of our minds the possibility that this could have been a criminal or terrorist act. So, we wanted to be involved from the very beginning, as well as, which NTSB agreed to, is to conduct it as a criminal investigation.
Halpern: Scott and Evidence Response Teams continued to comb through the airplane wreckage in search of fire or explosion damage or gun residue—any evidence to help determine the cause of the crash.
Robbins: There was metal debris from the airline itself. The aluminum debris all had to be rinsed off with fresh water, so we did that with fire hoses, and then we laid it out piece by piece on the floor of a hangar to dry. But also there were a lot of personal effects, clothing and suitcases full of clothing and personal documents and shoes and, and all of those were laid out on huge racks with fans to dry all that material so they wouldn't mold. You want to dry it off as quickly as you can and then sift through that for any type of debris or any type of evidence. If it had been an explosive device, perhaps is a piece of the, of the bomb wrapped up in a, in a piece of clothing or caught in a fibers of a piece of clothing.
Halpern: More and more colleagues joined them in the effort. Some boarded a ship and braved the high rolling waves to recover what the sea was still holding.
Robbins: It wasn't just me. There were hundreds of people, virtually everyone from the Boston Office, as well as folks from New York, and also Evidence Response Teams from the East Coast responded to assist us in processing all of this.
It was quite a big job. We all worked that case. And everyone was glad to do it because it was a sense of you're working something bigger than yourself. You're pulling together as a team to really work on something bigger than you individually, and you want to step up and do your part, however big or small that is.
Halpern: The scope of the job and the long days paled in comparison to the emotional toll it took.
The Evidence Response Teams were also charged with delicately handling the remains of the victims so they could be confirmed and identified.
Scott says it was impossible not to deeply feel the gravity of the loss.
Robbins: When you're sifting through personal effects of adults and children alike, and also when you're recovering personal effects that were meant to be given as gifts or mementos... these are, these are people's lives that you're dealing with, when you recover a passport with a photo on it and you know that that person has died in an airline crash, in a horrific crash. You try to remain professional about all that, but it does take a toll and, you know, we’re human after all.
Halpern: The teams kept at it. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months and finally the calendar read December 22.
Robbins: You're working tirelessly, 16, 18 hours a day, through Thanksgiving, right before Christmas. And then on December 22nd, it all comes to an end for the most part. And you're told to go home and spend the holidays with your family. And to make that transition back can be rather difficult. To leave that very hectic pace with a sense of mission and then have it all turned off like a light switch to make that transition can be difficult.
Halpern: Was it difficult, then, for you?
Robbins: Yes, it was.
Halpern: It would be another two years and five months before the probable cause of the crash was determined.
The NTSB found no evidence that mechanical problems, weather issues, or a bomb caused the plane to go down.
It indicated that the actions of a relief first officer contributed to the crash, but no conclusion was reached about the intent or motivation for his actions.
Twenty years have passed since EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean on that Halloween morning.
Scott Robbins: It's a time to remember and reflect, and you hope that you did everything that you could to treat the people that were lost with the dignity and respect that they deserved. And we all took that into consideration when we were handling any human remains or any personal property. It was inescapable that 217 people had died and that you were there to try to make things right for the survivors, for the families.
Halpern: Learn more about the work of the FBI Evidence Response Team at fbi.gov. With Inside the FBI, I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau. Thank you for listening.