It was the latest bizarre twist in a mystery that has taken a number of hairpin turns.
NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said yesterday that between the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder - both recovered in recent days from the depths of the Atlantic - there was enough evidence to answer many of the questions about why the Cairo-bound Boeing 767 plummeted into the ocean south of Nantucket, killing all 217 people aboard.
"We are concentrating our efforts on determining from the evidence, including [the voice recorder], whether or not this investigation is to remain under the leadership of the NTSB," Hall said at a news conference.
The only U.S. agency that has taken over such investigations is the FBI. Officials of that agency were as cryptic as Hall late yesterday about their possible growing involvement. Hall reportedly discussed the case yesterday with FBI Director Louis Freeh and briefed White House officials by phone.
"There are constant discussions between ourselves and the NTSB. There certainly have been discussions during the course of the day," FBI spokesman Joe Valiquette said from the agency's New York field office, which is coordinating law enforcement efforts in the crash.
"We all agree that the [cockpit voice recorder] needs further analysis before a decision is made," he said.
Hall would not say what was on the voice recorder, except that it was difficult to decipher because it was in a foreign language. He said that "more translating and interpreting resources" had been brought in and that investigators were working to correlate the timing of the events captured on the two recorders.
ABC News reported last night that at one point on the tape, the pilot appeared to have left the cockpit and that a voice believed to be the copilot's made a religious statement that is translated as "going into death." CBS News, in a similar report, said that the statement could be a prayer but that there was no agreement on what the prayer meant.
Normally, in major commercial airliner crashes, the FBI is part of the initial investigative team, with the NTSB taking the lead. If no sign of a crime emerges, the FBI backs away. The two agencies clashed in 1996 over which should lead the inquiry into the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, N.Y. - a crash initially suspected to involve criminal activity but now considered to have been the result of a mechanical problem.
For the first two weeks of the EgyptAir investigation, FBI officials had said they had no evidence pointing to the need for a criminal investigation.
That appeared to change after a more careful assessment of the voice recorder, following an initial report Sunday evening that the 311/2-minute tape produced no immediate conclusions as to what went wrong.
Bill Hendricks, who was a top crash investigator for the NTSB for 25 years and a high-ranking Federal Aviation Administration official for eight years, said Hall's comments yesterday "make one think that something's afoot."
"It's unusual," Hendricks said. "It would indicate to me that there's some doubt in their minds what happened, that there very well may be some criminal act committed on that airline."
"It certainly, at the very least, raises a question of whether there was a crime in-flight," Hendricks said.
And Thomas Farrier, a former military pilot and crash investigator, said that from what the NTSB was saying, "I would be betting on [the FBI] playing a larger role" in the investigation.
The last time the NTSB handed over an investigation into a fatal airliner accident was in the 1987 crash of a Pacific Southwest Airlines commuter jet from Los Angeles to San Francisco, NTSB spokesman Ted Lapatkiewicz said.
On that flight, a disgruntled airline employee, who wrote a suicide note on an airsickness bag, shot a colleague and then killed the pilot and copilot, sending the airplane into a fatal plunge that killed all 43 people aboard, according to the FBI.
Flight 990 was flying normally at 33,000 feet about half an hour out of John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City when the autopilot - which normally runs airliners - was suddenly disconnected. The Boeing 767 went into an unusually deep 40-degree dive and hit speeds of 716 m.p.h., creating stresses that could break the airplane apart. Then the slope of the dive diminished, both engines were shut down, and the two rear elevators that point the nose of the airplane were jammed in opposite directions.
The flight data recorder stopped gathering information after the airplane's engines were cut off because there was no more electricity. But radar data showed the jet dropping to 16,700 feet, then climbing back up to 24,000 feet before a final plunge and break-up.
Also yesterday, a judge in Rhode Island, where the investigation has been headquartered, cleared the way for issuing death certificates to relatives of the EgyptAir victims. The certificates will say that each victim is presumed dead.
The decision will help families avoid lengthy delays while dealing with banks on victims' mortgages, estate issues and other financial matters, legal experts said.
For more information on the Internet from the NTSB's investigation of EgyptAir Flight 990, see www.ntsb.gov