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Families weep as debris from EgyptAir disaster found in the Mediterranean Sea

Authorities on Friday said they found debris from EgyptAir Flight 804, which a day earlier plunged 38,000 feet into the Mediterranean Sea. Relatives of the 66 people on the plane mourned as harsh reality set in. Mystery still surrounds the cause — terrorism or catastrophic mechanical failure? John Yang reports, and science correspondent Miles O’Brien gives his analysis of what we know so far.

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  •  JUDY WOODRUFF:

    They have found some of what's left of EgyptAir Flight 804, and new clues may be emerging in the investigation. The passenger plane vanished from the radar early yesterday, en route from Paris to Cairo, with 66 people on board.

    John Yang reports on the day's developments.

  • JOHN YANG:

    At a Cairo mosque, families of passengers aboard EgyptAir Flight 804 prayed, and wept, for loved ones.

    ABDEL RAHMAN AL NASERY, Cousin of Passenger (through interpreter): He was my cousin. He was like an elder brother to me. This is very hard for the family, and God bless all who died on the plane.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Their hopes dashed by the discovery of wreckage from the Airbus A-320 announced on Egyptian state television.

  • WOMAN (through interpreter):

    We have just received an official report from the Egyptian army. Military airplanes have been able to locate wreckage and belongings of the airplane.

  • JOHN YANG:

    The Greek defense minister recounted the grisly details.

  • PANOS KAMMENOS, Defense Minister, Greece (through interpreter):

    We have been briefed about the discovery of a body part, two seats and luggage at the scene of the search, slightly to the south of where the plane's signal was lost.

  • JOHN YANG:

    A European satellite image showed an oil slick spreading over the area where the plane disappeared. Debris was spotted floating in the Mediterranean about 180 miles north of Alexandria, Egypt. It's an area were the sea is up to two miles' deep, but still no firm evidence of what happened.

    Late today, what could be a significant clue: The Aviation Herald, an online aviation community, reported that an automated monitoring system on the plane sent signals indicating smoke in the front of the cabin and then failures of two key control systems before going silent.

    Egyptian officials had initially suggested a terror attack as the likeliest explanation, but the Greek defense minister said today it's just too early to tell.

  • PANOS KAMMENOS (through interpreter):

    There is no possibility to assess the situation. We cannot be part of the speculation, because the investigation committee must be allowed to do its work.

  • JOHN YANG:

    The French navy is helping scour the sea, and its investigators said no possible causes are being ruled out.

  • JEAN-MARC AYRAULT, Foreign Minister, France (through interpreter):

    All hypotheses are being examined. There is no specific one being favored. We have to find the debris and analyze it, and of course the black boxes, because we want to know the truth, the whole truth.

  • JOHN YANG:

    So far, there's no hard evidence of an explosion. But from Cairo to Paris and beyond, speculation centers on terrorism.

  • STEVEN SIMON, Dartmouth College:

    They can't pretend that it wasn't or completely suspend judgment. They have to check the locks.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Steven Simon served on President Obama's National Security Council. He says officials have to investigate it as a possible terror attacks.

  • STEVEN SIMON:

    They will look to see if any of the identities of any of the people on the airplane, the crew, the maintenance team, anybody who had anything to do with that airplane while it was on the ground in Paris, they will just go through, you know, those records with a fine-tooth comb, looking for dots to connect, if indeed there are any.

  • JOHN YANG:

    At the same time, he says, Europe has to work on beefing up counterterrorism efforts.

  • STEVEN SIMON:

    It's sort of a cumulative process. You can't throw a lot of money at something and expect radical changes in six months. This is going to be a transformative process in the European context which will take a while to complete.

  • JOHN YANG:

    As the search for what, or perhaps who, brought down Flight 804 presses ahead.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So far, there's been no claim by any outside group that it had a hand in bringing down the plane.

    Here to talk through some of the many questions still out there is our science correspondent and aviation analyst, Miles O'Brien.

    Miles, first, this automated data that became known this afternoon, what do you make of that?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, just a quick bit of background for our viewers.

    This is — as an aircraft flies around, it's essentially live-streaming its condition, its health of various systems. It's mostly for maintenance, so when the plane lands, they know what parts to have ready and what to fix it to get it back in the air again.

    There were a series of faults apparently right before the plane disappeared from radar, beginning with some problems with the windshield in the cockpit, smoke in the lavatory and in the avionics bay, which is beneath the cockpit, and then some failures of the computer systems.

    There are literally hundreds of computer systems controlling this aircraft. They all have to operate in concert. This is certainly consistent with a catastrophic event. Whether it is a bomb or some major mechanical failure remains to be seen. It also is consistent with that initial left turn reported on Greek radar.

    The plane took a 90-degree left turn initially when it apparently was in trouble, and that is standard operating procedure for a flight crew dealing with a decompression event and trying to do a rapid descent.

    The idea is not to fly into the airway beneath you and potentially hit oncoming traffic.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, this is — in other words, you're saying this is consistent with the little bit, the little that's known about what the plane did before it plunged into the water?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    It is consistent with a crew dealing with a rapid decompression.

    The cause of that rapid decompression, we don't know. Was it a bomb or was it a major mechanical failure are the open questions.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Miles, what about the material they found floating in the water? They said two seats, a body part and some other luggage and so forth. Do we know anything based on that?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    It's a reminder, of course, of the human tragedy of all this.

    But it's customary in these cases that you see seat cushions and life vests and baggage because it — obviously, it floats. Typically, it's not very helpful unless, by some chance, the baggage happened to be close to where the initial failure occurred.

    What's useful, however, is knowing where it is, knowing the ocean currents, knowing how long it's been in the water. You can backtrack to the point of impact. And that's where you begin your search for the main body of wreckage and the black boxes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, we heard in John Yang's report that that part of the Mediterranean is something like two miles' deep. What does that tell us about the difficulty of this ongoing search?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    That it is difficult. It's a big challenge, fishing these boxes out.

    We go through this time and again. There is technology off the shelf used by the military right now which has ejectable, floatable, deployable flight data recorders. There is technology which makes it possible to stream this data back in real time, not unlike the stream that we have just been talking about.

    In the 21st century, the fact that we have to listen for pings two miles beneath the surface of the ocean to find out a critical question — the answer to a critical question is a bit scandalous. We should do something about it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Miles, a lot of people are saying now that we need to assume there was terrorism involved. Does it make sense to do that, in the absence of a hard answer right now?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, I think we — I would caution our viewers.

    If, in fact, there was some sort of mechanical failure here, that's a very important thing to know as soon as possible. This is a fleet of aircraft in excess of 6,000 the world over. It's an extreme — it's a workhorse, and if there is some fundamental flaw here which caused this, we need to know about it yesterday.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you're saying — but are we any closer? You're saying it's just coming very slowly as we get any closer to answers.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You know, absent a claim of credit — and we haven't seen that just yet — we're in the dark on this, and it's — you know, eventually, maybe a piece of fleeting wreckage will offer a clue as to whether there was a bomb on board, but I'm afraid we are going to have to wait for those black boxes, the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, to be discovered at the bottom of the sea.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, in the meantime, hold off on any assumptions?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    I think so.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Miles O'Brien, we thank you.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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