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Gulf Air Jet Crashes Into Persian Gulf, Killing All 143 Passengers

By Howard Schneider
THE WASHINGTON POST -- CAIRO

A Gulf Air jetliner trying to land after a flight from Cairo with 143 people aboard crashed into the Persian Gulf Wednesday night just off Bahrain. Despite a frantic search for survivors in the shallow coastal waters, all aboard were believed to have died.

Bahrain’s undersecretary for civil aviation, Ibrahim Abdullah Hammar, said local rescue crews and U.S. Navy personnel working in darkness had recovered 137 bodies in an operation that began immediately after the 7:20 p.m. crash. “The search is still going on for the remaining six bodies,” he told the Reuters news agency.

The Airbus A320, a twin-engine aircraft, carried 135 passengers and eight crew members on Gulf Air Flight 72. Reports from Bahrain, a small island nation just off the east coast of Saudi Arabia, said the plane’s pilot had tried to land twice and was preparing for a third attempt when the aircraft crashed into the gulf about four miles north of the airport at Manama, the capital.

Bahrain television reported that an engine caught fire as the airliner approached for a landing, but a Manama air controller told the Associated Press that the crew reported no problems before the crash and that he saw no flames or other signs of trouble as the plane passed overhead.

The Pentagon said that U.S. Navy destroyers Oldendorf and Milius and the support ship Catawba took part in rescue operations well into the night, along with two H-60 Seahawk helicopters from the aircraft carrier George Washington and an H-3 Sea King helicopter based in Manama. The U.S. 5th Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf, is based in the Bahraini capital.

The U.S. naval equipment, which also included smaller craft, joined a fleet of boats dispatched by the Bahraini military and National Guard to scour the gulf for survivors as helicopters trained searchlights across the crash area, illuminating bodies as well as debris from the downed aircraft, witnesses said.

An official in the Bahraini Ministry of Information said the airliner carried mostly Egyptian passengers, many of them returning to jobs in the gulf region. “Most were coming from vacation in Cairo,” said ministry spokesman Sayed Bably.

Families of passengers believed to have been aboard gathered at the Cairo and Manama airports to await release of the passenger manifest and further results of the search. About 200 people assembled in Manama, and many broke into wails of grief as an airline official haltingly read a roster of those presumed to have been on Flight 72.