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Egyptian Officials Continue Investigation Into EgyptAir Crash

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the southern Mediterranean Sea, planes and ships continue to search for signs of a missing EgyptAir passenger jet. The Airbus A320 was headed from Paris to Cairo when it went missing overnight. It dropped off of radars near the Egyptian coast. There were 66 people onboard - 56 passengers and 10 crew. Officials in both France and Egypt say the plane crashed. The cause is unknown. NPR's Emily Harris reports from Cairo where relatives of the passengers gathered.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Le Passage Hotel on the grounds of the Cairo airport complex is the kind of place you might come for a break from the unceasing chaos of Cairo. It has a comfortable bar in its large lobby, trimmed in mirrors and brass. There's fine dining and a disco upstairs. But today, it became a place for relatives of those on EgyptAir Flight 804 to come to await any news of their loved ones.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I am sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I am sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Please, please.

HARRIS: Families stayed in a private back room with airline officials as hosts keeping the media at bay. Outside, nine thin, young men waited for a friend to come out from that back room. Half of them sat, half stood around in a sort of squashed circle, so no one was too far away from anyone else. They had little to say. One offered just this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Just being with your friend is a kind of support.

HARRIS: Just being with your friend is a kind of support, he said. That was more important for him tonight than the details of the plane's disappearance - officials from at least three countries are still piecing together. More than half of the 56 passengers were Egyptian, a quarter were French. According to EgyptAir records, there were two Iraqis, one Belgian, one Britt, a Canadian, a Kuwaiti and Saudi among the rest onboard.

Egypt's civil aviation minister, Sherif Fathy, said the last contact the plane had was with Greek air traffic controllers, and it was routine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHERIF FATHY: It was just the regular contact between an aircraft crossing the airspace of the country. They didn't report any difficulties. It was just a normal-like procedure.

HARRIS: But a few minutes later, nothing was normal. The plane disappeared from radar and lost contact. Fathy did not want to suggest what caused the plane to drop from 37,000 feet, but he suggested it may not have been mechanical failure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FATHY: The situation may point - and I say may because I don't want to go to speculations and I don't want to go to assumptions like others - but if you analyze the situation properly, the possibility of having a different action or having a terror attack is higher than the impossibility of having a technical...

HARRIS: The Egyptian minister refused to discuss specific possible scenarios or share his own theories based on whatever detail he may have known.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FATHY: We need to wait. We analyze the feedback we get back from our partners. And then thereafter, we will make our own statements. And, by the way, don't expect within days that we will make a clear statement unless of course something happens - that we will make a clear statement about what happened to the aircraft. Look at the history. Look what happened with similar cases in the past.

HARRIS: Just over six months ago, a Russian plane leaving the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh exploded shortly after takeoff, killing all 224 people onboard. A local ISIS affiliate claimed responsibility. Egypt long denied it was terrorism. Officially, they say, that crash is still under investigation. Emily Harris, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.