Israeli Leaders Extend Condolences As Investigation of El Al Crash Begins

As experts began investigating the crash of an El Al cargo jet outside Amsterdam on Sunday, Israeli leaders extended condolences to their Dutch counterparts for the fatalities in the worst air disaster in Dutch history.

Dutch officials were estimating that some 250 people may have been killed in the crash, which was the first in El Al’s 44-year-history.

In contrast to the expected large numbers of fatalities, there were relatively few wounded, and most were sent home after treatment.

Two Israeli investigating teams began work Monday: one a Transport Ministry inquiry board, headed by former air force Cmdr. Amos Lapidot, and the other an El Al team, headed by the airline’s deputy director general for operations.

They were joined by members of three other investigating bodies: an official Dutch Transport Ministry group and teams from the Boeing Commercial Airplane Group in Seattle, manufacturers of the plane’s body, and the Pratt and Whitney engine corporation, manufacturers of the jet engines.

Experts here said it would take at least three months before they would have a reliable picture of the cause for the malfunction of the two right-wing engines, which ceased to function shortly after takeoff.

While neither Israeli nor Dutch officials would rule out sabotage without the investigation results, they believe a technical mishap was to blame.

El Al has until now enjoyed one of the best airline safety records in the world.

Messages of condolence crossed between Israel and Holland. Condolences also came from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and French President Francois Mitterrand.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands sent letters of condolence to the families of the three Israeli crew members and one passenger killed in the crash of the Boeing 707 jumbo cargo jet.

The dead Israelis were identified as Capt. Yitzhak Fuchs, 57, of Ramat Hasharon, the pilot and an El Al veteran of many years; 1st Officer Ohad Arnon of Givatayim, 36, who had joined El Al less than a year ago; Gedalyahu Sofer, 55, the flight engineer; and Anat Salamon, wife of the El Al deputy security officer in Amsterdam, who was returning home and traveling as a passenger.

Israeli Ambassador Michael Bawly visited the scene of the disaster soon after it occurred and expressed his profound sorrow over the heavy loss of life.

Israeli President Chaim Herzog sent a message to Queen Beatrix. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, “Our hearts are with you at this moment, and we mourn the Dutch and Israeli casualties.”

Israel’s foreign minister, Shimon Peres, sent condolences to Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek. Both Rabin and Peres offered the Dutch assistance they might need, including an army disaster rescue team. No reply had been received by Monday evening.

The Israeli plane had plunged into two densely populated nine-story buildings, which were home to immigrants from Suriname, Curacao and, more recently, from Ghana in West Africa. It is believed the buildings also housed a large number of illegal residents, leading to more fatalities than estimated.

Rescue efforts were hampered by the threat of building collapse. By Monday afternoon, only 14 bodies had been recovered.

The disaster began 10 minutes after the jet’s takeoff from Schiphol Airport. The Tel Aviv-bound plane reported its No. 3 engine on fire. The pilot tried to return to the airport, after first emptying part of his fuel over a nearby lake.

Engine No. 4 then caught fire. Both damaged engines worked loose and plunged into a wooded area east of Amsterdam.

The pilot flew in a fairly large circle to achieve the altitude needed for landing and was an estimated three minutes short of touchdown when the plane went out of control and plowed into the two apartment buildings.

Eyewitnesses said there was no explosion in the air. The blast occurred only when the jet careened into the buildings in the Bijlmermeer district of the suburb of Duivendrecht.

The plane, built in 1979, had recently undergone a routine overhaul, had logged 44,736 flight hours — considered normal — and was being flown by an experienced crew.

The cargo jet had touched down in Amsterdam en route from New York to load additional cargo, refuel, and pick up a replacement flight crew for the last leg home. It was one of two 747 craft devoted solely to cargo and the more recent of the pair.

As of Monday evening, searchers had not found the flight recorder, the so- called black box, which is actually colored bright orange to facilitate its location amid wreckage. When decoded, it registers hundreds of thousands of data about the plane’s performance and cockpit conversations during the last half-hour of the flight.

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv.)

NEXT STORY