CAIRO (KTVU/ AP) — The United States is sending resources to help in the search for the missing Egypt Air flight 804, that disappeared off radar suddenly Thursday enroute from Paris to Cairo.
Authorities say the Airbus A320 aircraft was carrying 56 passengers, 7 crew members and three security guards when it went down about halfway between the Greek island of Crete and Egypt's coastline, or around 175 miles (282 kilometers) offshore, after departing at 11:09 Wednesday night from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos said the plane took a wild spin before disappearing about 2:45 a.m. Cairo time (12:45 a.m. GMT). He said it made a 90-degree left turn, then a full 360-degree turn to the right, plummeting from 38,000 feet (11,582 meters) to 15,000 feet (4,572 meters). It disappeared at about 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), he said.
There were no reports of stormy weather at the time and no distress signal from the plane.
Shock and grief gripped families of the passengers. Families of passengers gathered at the Cairo airport, desperate for any news. Authorities brought doctors to the scene after several distressed family members collapsed.
At De Gaulle Airport, a man and woman sat at an information desk near the EgyptAir counter, the woman sobbing into a handkerchief, before they were led away by police. Some relatives boarded Egypt Air planes Thursday that would take them closer to the search site.
"They don't have any information. They haven't found the wreckage but obviously there is little hope," said Mohammed Ramez, who said through a translator that his in-laws were on the missing flight.
The pilot made contact about ten minutes before the plane disappeared and everything seemed normal.
"The information we have been able to gather is the plane came down and is lost," said French President Francois Hollande.
The White House said the United States is sending resources to the Mediterranean.
"The United States Navy is working to deploy a P-3 Orion aircraft to provide support for the search of the missing jetliner," said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Thursday.
"The P-3 Orion is one of the most advanced aircraft the Navy flies," said Mike McCarron, an aviation consultant and former spokesman for San Francisco International Airport.
McCarron says the P-3 Orion was once based in the Bay Area at Moffett Field. It is known as the "submarine hunter" and McCarron says it has infrared imaging, can carry out 12-14 hour missions, and can track down an aircraft's black box signals underwater by deploying special sensors.
"One part floats on the surface has a little vhf antennae. The other part is the hydrophone that drops to a predetermined depth. And that hydrophone can listen for that pinger on the black boxes," McCarron explained.
Egyptian and Greek authorities in ships and planes searched the suspected crash area Thursday for traces of the airliner or its victims, but as night fell, they had yet to find any confirmed debris, at one point dismissing a reported sighting of life vests and other floating material.
Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathi cautioned that the disaster was still under investigation but said the possibility it was a terror attack "is higher than the possibility of having a technical failure."
Alexander Bortnikov, chief of Russia's top domestic security agency, went further, saying: "In all likelihood it was a terror attack."
There was no immediate claim from militants that they had downed the plane.
If it was terrorism, it would be the second deadly attack involving Egypt's aviation industry in seven months.
Last October, a Russian passenger plane that took off from an Egyptian Red Sea resort crashed in the Sinai, killing all 224 people aboard. Russia said it was brought down by a bomb, and a local branch of the Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Thursday's disaster also raises questions about security at De Gaulle Airport, at a time when Western Europe has been on high alert over the deadly Islamic extremist attacks in Paris and at the Brussels airport and subway over the past six months.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that airport security had been tightened considerably before the disaster, in part because of the coming European soccer championship, which France is hosting.
Its erratic course suggested a number of possible explanations, including a catastrophic mechanical or structural failure, a bombing, or a struggle over the controls with a hijacker in the cockpit.
The aircraft had stopped in Eritrea and Tunisia before leaving from Paris, where it had undergone a maintenance check prior to departure.
Egyptian security officials said they were running background checks on the passengers to see if any had links to extremists.
In the U.S., the FBI offered its assistance in the investigation. FBI Director James Comey said the bureau has no evidence yet that the plane was brought down intentionally.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said there is much that is unknown.
"We are looking through our intelligence collections to figure out if we have any images. Do we have any signals intelligence that reveals a discussion of a plot like this?" Schiff said.
"We're working with the French to try to figure out is there any information we have that could shed light on any of the passengers, but there's nothing yet to confirm the cause of the plane crash."
He said the plane seemed to have broken apart in flight, but why is unclear.
Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Latiff, an aerospace expert at the University of Notre Dame, said that while it is too early to tell for certain, an accidental structural failure of the highly reliable A320 is "vanishingly improbable."
He also cast doubt on the possibility of a struggle in the cockpit, saying the crew would have triggered an alarm.
Instead, he said, "Sabotage is possible, and if there were lax controls at airports and loose hiring and security policies, increasingly likely."
Similarly, John Goglia, a former U.S. National Transportation Safety Board member, said early indications point more to a bomb, since it appears that no mayday call was issued during the abrupt turns. He said the aircraft's black-box voice and data recorders should hold the answers.
Those on board, according to EgyptAir and various governments, included 15 French passengers, 30 Egyptians, two Iraqis, one Briton, one Kuwaiti, one Saudi, one Sudanese, one Chadian, one Portuguese, one Belgian, one Algerian and two Canadians. Two babies were aboard, officials said.
Among the passengers, according to employers and officials, were the Egypt-raised manager of a Procter & Gamble plant in Amiens, France; a Saudi woman who works at the Saudi Embassy in Cairo; the sister-in-law of an Egyptian diplomatic official in Paris; and a student at France's prestigious Saint-Cyr military academy who was heading home to Chad to mourn his mother.
Whatever caused the crash, the disaster is likely to deepen Egypt's woes as the country struggles to revive its ailing economy, particularly its lucrative tourism industry. It has been battered by the bloodshed and political turmoil that have engulfed Egypt since the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
French President Francois Hollande held an emergency meeting at the Elysee Palace. He also spoke with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi by telephone and agreed to "closely cooperate to establish as soon as possible the circumstances" surrounding the disaster, according to a statement.
In addition to joining the search-and-rescue operation, France sent a team of accident investigators.
In Cairo, el-Sissi convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, the country's highest security body. It includes the defense, foreign and interior ministers and the chiefs of the intelligence agencies.
In Paris, the city prosecutor's office opened an investigation. "No hypothesis is favored or ruled out at this stage," it said in a statement.
The Airbus A320 is a widely used twin-engine plane that operates on short- and medium-haul routes. Nearly 4,000 A320s are in use around the world.
The last deadly crash involving one of the planes was in March 2015, when one of the pilots of a Germanwings flight deliberately slammed it into the French Alps, killing all 150 people aboard.
Airbus said the aircraft in Thursday's disaster was delivered to EgyptAir in 2003 and had logged 48,000 flight hours. The pilot had more than 6,000 hours of flying time, authorities said.
In March, an EgyptAir plane was hijacked and diverted to Cyprus. A man described by authorities as mentally unstable was taken into custody.