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France Confirms Smoke Onboard Before EgyptAir Flight Crash

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Investigators are collecting clues as what may have enfolded in the moments before the crash of an EgyptAir jet on Thursday. There are indications that smoke was detected on board just before the plane lost contact, but there's still very little information about what may have caused that smoke. NPR's Emily Harris is in Cairo. Emily, thanks for being with us.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Where'd this information about the smoke come from?

HARRIS: This is data that was collected and sent to land during the flight automatically by an automatic transmission system. And the existence of these messages of trouble on the flight were first reported by a trade publication, Aviation Herald. And then it was confirmed by the French agency that investigates plane crashes this morning. Basically, it's seven very brief notes. They're sent over a three-minute period. Each one has its own timestamp, and so they show that they were sent right before the pilot and radar contact with the plane were lost.

SIMON: And what does that tell us? Or maybe I should say what might that tell us?

HARRIS: Well, it certainly might, but it does tell us that there were problems. That's what this - those transmissions are for. It doesn't tell us specifically what happened. The spokesperson for the French air accident investigation agency says the agency's not drawing conclusions, although he also said, in general, the presence of smoke - if that's indeed what it was - would mean the start of a fire. There were two messages identifying smoke in several places. There were other messages published by the Aviation Herald that noted problems with several windows. But officials say what they really need for a more complete picture are the voice cockpit and data flight recorders, which search crews are still looking for in the Mediterranean.

SIMON: Yeah. Smoke could also, as I understand - could also mean bits of debris or condensation, right?

HARRIS: It could mean bits of debris, dust. If it's an optical type of smoke detector, it could mean different things.

SIMON: The first photos of some of that recovered wreckage are circulating now. They've been posted by the Egyptian military Facebook page. What do we see in those pictures?

HARRIS: Well, they're photos of debris laid out on the deck of a navy ship that sat in the Mediterranean. And then the crews - they posted a video, too - go out in little rubber dinghies to pick up pieces from the ocean. There's twisted pieces of the plane. One of them has the AirEgypt (ph) logo visible on it. Another picture shows ripped up seats. Another shows an unused life vest. It's still, you know, flat, Scott, like they are when the flight attendants put them on and then pretend to blow into the little tubes.

SIMON: Yeah.

HARRIS: Egyptian officials say they've also recovered some human remains. And here in Cairo, people have been holding prayers and services for those who were on the plane. I went to one yesterday at a mosque where the imam explained right before the prayer that it's the same prayer as if the body were there.

HARRIS: And what have we learned about some of the people who've been lost?

HARRIS: Their stories are coming out. I mean, you know, at first, we just knew the numbers. There were seven crew, three security staff, 56 passengers - and among those, a child and two infants. But they aren't numbers, of course. They are people, and we're learning who they are and how they happened to be on that plane and what they left behind.

Two, for example, where an Egyptian couple. A friend of theirs told me they were on a pleasure trip to Paris. Their two young children had stayed behind in Cairo, and their parents didn't return. And then we're starting to learn these personal details, but there's still the big unanswered question - what happened? And then, depending on that answer, there'll be more questions. The bottom line, of course, is where did our safety system for flying go wrong?

SIMON: NPR's Emily Harris in Cairo. Thanks so much.

HARRIS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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