The cause of the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 is still undetermined, but a careful examination the Cockpit Voice Recorder transcript released by the National Transportation Safety Board few days ago adds further doubts on the suicide theory.
Initially, reports attributed to leaks in the official investigative agencies suggested the copilot uttered the common Muslim supplication "I put my trust in God," then shut engine before the plane plunged down. It was also reported that the cockpit crew were working across purposes and that the copilot was heard saying "I made my decision" before the plane crashed. No where in the transcript is the copilot heard saying he made his decision. So this "leak" was a total fabrication.
The 38-page document covers 31 minutes of conversations among crew members and between them and the ground controllers. At 1:19 a.m. the plane took off with the pilot offering the Muslim supplication words, "In the Name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful." At 1:37 a.m. there was a squeaking sound that did not attract the attention of the crew. The job-related communication continued and included a discussion about regulations, peppered with friendly personal chat--especially when the older copilot, al-Gamil Battouty, refers in jest to a younger colleague as a "loser." At 1:39 a.m., laughter is heard. At 1:41 a.m. there was a sound of a click, which, again, did not seem to alarm the crewmembers. At 1:42 a.m. the crew established communication with ground controllers. From then until 1:48 a.m., the transcript documents several sounds of chuckle, hand claps, clicks, and thumps, none of which impacted the course of the conversation. Then, a crewmember calls the copilot Jimmy, a westernized version of Gamil, and excuses himself to go to the lavatory.
The dramatic turn of events starts after that with the sharp increase in the sounds of clicks, thumps, and thunks. Thirty seconds after 1:48 a.m., something was heard, but the interpreters could not determine its nature. Nor is it determined yet the elevation of the plane at this time, or any moment thereafter. Nine seconds later, the copilot is heard saying " I put my trust in God." Then for the next minute and nine seconds the transcript records only sounds of thumps and clinks and other tones, with no indication as to what the copilot in control of the plane is saying or doing.
Did he determine that something seriously wrong was taking place? No evidence proving or disproving that has been offered thus far. Fourty-eight seconds after 1:49 a.m., the copilot is heard again offering the supplication words for one more time between the continuing background sounds, which are growing louder and now included a "Master Caution"--apparently indicating something serious is going wrong. Nine seconds later, or 38 seconds before the fatal moment, the copilot is heard frantically offering the same supplication for seven times, which he uttered in seven seconds, clearly indicating a state of panic and confusion.
One second later, another crewmember is heard asking the copilot about what is going on. The following second, the copilot uttered the supplication two times, while sounds of clinks and thumps are heard with the "Master Warning." For the next 15 seconds, the crewmember sounds helpless, only asking, "What is this? What is going on, Gamil? What is going on?"
Then just 10 seconds before the end of the recording the crewmember is heard asking, "What is this? What is this? Did you shut the engine(s)? Get the engines away. Shut the engines." The copilot immediately is heard replying "Shut." (This is contrary to most media reports suggesting the copilot was not responsive.)
Then for the last seven seconds the crewmember is heard telling the copilot to pull with him. No clue is offered in the tape as to what the copilot was doing in these moments of confusion and distress. Thus contrary to what was suggested in media reports, evidence suggests that the crewmembers were working in tandem. Both thought at the end, for right or wrong, that shutting the engines was the proper course of action.
Some media reports continue to promote the suicide theory. Despite the revelations of the tape, some continue to suggest that the copilot may have intentionally committed suicide. But what evidence support this theory? The copilot asked to fly the plane, although he was not on duty. Doe this amount to an evidence of the intent to kill one self and more than two hundred innocent people? Most likely not.
Was the copilot in a suicidal state of mind? His psychaitrist, family members and friends agree that he was not. In fact, suicide is rare in the Egypt (and the Muslim world); religious teachings classify the act as an unforgivable sin. (The Quran teaches that God is the giver and taker of life. The Prophet Muhammad said a person taking his own life would end up in Hell-fire.)
To many Muslims, it seems beyond the boundaries of rationality that a man would proclaim reliance on God while carrying out the gravely sinful deed. To suggest that the copilot was acting irrationally demands evidence, which is not found in the Cockpit Voice Recorder transcript. The copilot's psychiatrist, family members and friends believe he was in full mental health.
Was the copilot engaged in a streneous effort to save the plane and praying to God for success? Those familiar with the Islamic culture would suggest that the supplication words, on their own, may offer a clue supporting this probability. One has to remember that Muslims generally may offer few words of supplication when they embark on any tasks. No one, however, can be certain of what was on the mind of the copilot.
Did he panic and felt that death was so near when the sounds in the plane become louder and uncontrollable that he only could remember his creator? Is it not obvious based on the prayer utterance and the sequence of events, as known today, whether EgyptAir 990 crashed because of a deliberate action, mechanical failure or pilot error. One thing is certain: information released by the NTSB makes the suicide theory the most unsubstantiated of them all. (Mohamed Nimer is research director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group headquartered in Washington, D.C.)