SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt – A charter jet carrying 148 people — mostly French tourists — crashed Saturday into the Red Sea shortly after taking off from the resort of Sharm el-Sheik, killing everyone on board, officials said.
Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said the crash was apparently caused by a mechanical problem and not terrorism. But it occurred as the British prime minister was visiting the resort and amid a week of heightened concerns about terrorism that have led to canceled flights around the world.
French anti-terrorism authorities in Paris said they did not expect to open an investigation since the crash appeared to have been an accident.
France’s Deputy Transportation Minister Dominique Bussereau said that the pilot of Flash Airlines flight FSH604 detected problems shortly after takeoff and tried to turn back.
Egypt’s military sent helicopters and small patrol boats to search an area of the sea littered with floating suitcases and other debris.
A French Foreign Ministry spokesman said that 133 of the people aboard were French tourists. A French Embassy official in Cairo said the list of those on board also showed one Moroccan and 13 crew members. There was one additional passenger whose nationality was not known.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair was vacationing at the resort, but a spokeswoman at his office in London said neither Blair nor any members of his family were aboard the plane.
The Boeing 737 jet, which disappeared from radar after it took off shortly before 5 a.m., was headed to Cairo for a crew change before continuing to Paris. No distress call was made, airport officials said on condition of anonymity.
People waiting for family members at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris early Saturday were pulled aside by airport authorities and taken by shuttle bus to a nearby hotel.
“Up until now, the cause is a technical one,” Minister of Civil Aviation Ahmed Shafeeq told state-run Egyptian television. “There was a malfunction that made it difficult for the crew to … save the plane.”
France’s deputy transportation minister, Dominique Bussereau, said Saturday that the flight had a problem on takeoff and crashed when it tried to turn back. He spoke during a press conference at Charles de Gaulle airport, where the flight had been scheduled to arrive at 9 a.m.
The trip was organized by FRAM, one of France’s biggest tour operators.
Looking pale and shaken, a couple in their 50s arrived at the Charles de Gaulle terminal early Saturday. The man asked an airport official: “My children are at Sharm. How do I find out if they were on the plane?”
The couple was then taken to the crisis center.
French authorities will help Egypt “in order to shed light as quickly as possible on this catastrophe that has plunged our country into mourning,” Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said in a statement.
The United States was also sending an accident investigator, said Keith Holloway, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington. He said Egypt had requested the help.
Flash Airlines said in a statement that the wreckage was found about nine miles from the airport, according to the Egyptian news agency MENA. Engineers from the national carrier EgyptAir were helping to determine what happened.
Flash Airlines, which has been in business for six years, said the Boeing 737 was one of two it owned. About 20 people, including weeping relatives of crew members, had gathered at the airline’s offices in Cairo.
One man arrived at the office to check on his daughter, a 30-year-old flight attendant. He walked out in despair 15 minutes later, supported by relatives. “Samia, Samia,” he wailed. Next to him, his wife screamed, “My daughter, my daughter.”
The weather was clear in Sharm el-Sheik, 300 miles southeast of Cairo on the Sinai peninsula, and other flights were taking off without incident, officials said.
The jet flew in early Saturday from Milan, Italy, and dropped off passengers in Sharm el-Sheik, the airline said. New passengers then boarded for the flight to Paris.
The airplane had received its maintenance checks in Norway and the most recent one showed no problems, the airline said.
French President Jacques Chirac phoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss the crash, MENA said.
Sharm el-Sheik is a popular Red Sea tourist resort that also frequently hosts major political and economic summits. Egypt has held several meetings on Middle East peace there, including one in which President Bush met with regional leaders in June over the “road map” plan toward creating a Palestinian state.
Egypt’s last major airline disaster occurred in 1999, when an EgyptAir jetliner crashed shortly after leaving New York en route to Cairo, killing all 217 people aboard. U.S. investigators said the crash was caused by a suicidal co-pilot.