TIME Aviation

Why We May Never Be Certain the Germanwings Crash Was Deliberate

A similar 1999 crash remains shrouded in mystery

As investigators continue to search for clues about the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525, a new theory has emerged: a French prosecutor said on Thursday that the flight’s co-pilot brought the plane down on purpose.

Black box recordings suggest that when the pilot left the cockpit, the co-pilot locked the door and deliberately flew the plane into the mountain, not responding to the pilot’s pounding on the door or, in fact, saying a single word during the descent.

The shocking revelation may remind observers of another crash, when on Oct. 31, 1999, Egyptair Flight 990 went down on its way from New York City to Cairo. When the black box from that flight was retrieved, this, as per TIME’s recounting, was what was heard:

The cockpit door opens, then closes. Silence. After four or five minutes, a calm voice utters three words in Arabic. “Tawakalt ala Allah”: “I put my faith in God,” or “I entrust myself to God.”

It is 1:49 a.m. and 46 sec. on Oct. 31. EgyptAir Flight 990 is cruising uneventfully at 33,000 ft. on its normal heading from New York City northeast across the Atlantic toward Cairo. At that moment, two distinct clicks of a button on the control yoke disconnect the autopilot guiding the plane. Eight seconds later, the control yoke is pushed forward, tipping the tail up, pitching the nose down, and the aircraft tilts into a precipitous but controlled dive. Fourteen seconds later, the aircraft reaches 90% of the speed of sound and zero gravity–weightlessness–as it plummets through the night sky.

The cockpit door opens again. The master alarms start to whoop. A voice demands, “What’s going on?” or “What’s happening?” Then the same voice urges, “Pull with me! Pull with me!” Twenty-seven seconds into the dive, the horizontal elevators on the tail that normally operate in tandem to stabilize the aircraft wrench in opposite directions: the left side pulls to make the plane climb, the right one pushes to keep it in a dive. Gravity and the two powerful Pratt & Whitney engines on the Boeing 767 continue to force the plane down. A second later, a small shield is flicked up over the twin-engine control levers on the central console, and both engines switch off. Four seconds after that, the plane’s speed brakes, panels deployed atop the wings rise into the airstream, disrupting the lift in an effort to slow down the descent. Suddenly, the plane begins to climb.

After an additional 11 sec., the flight-data recorder and cockpit voice recorder stop working; the altitude-reporting transponder quits. Land radar tracks the plane as it climbs 8,000 ft. with a force of gravity 2 1/2 times normal. Then the aircraft stalls, lurches downward, breaks apart and leaves nothing on the radar screen but a cascade of neon debris falling into the sea.

Those bare clicks, murmurs and whines recorded by the plane’s two black boxes, then synchronized with ground-control radar tracks, are all the “facts” investigators have so far to construct a picture of what happened to Flight 990. But do they add up to the terrible possibility that one of the pilots deliberately sent the plane into its death dive, committing an unspeakable act of self-destruction and mass murder?

In that case, despite the recording and other evidence that the pilot did not try to avert the crash, the suicide-by-crash theory still, over 15 years later, remains unproven. The National Transportation Safety Board took the hypothesis seriously from the beginning but, TIME reported, those on the Egyptian side of the investigation denied that it was a possibility.

Responding to those who interpreted the pilot’s actions as a murderous, terroristic act, many in Egypt and its allies saw a cultural presumption in the idea that a prayer in Arabic — which could also be an expression of surprise or concern — could indicate a link to terrorism. And to those who saw it as an act of personal desperation, many Egyptians said that was also an insult, given the extreme shame associated with suicide in their culture.

The pilot’s family rushed to provide evidence that the pilot, Gamil El Batouty, was a happy man with no reason to crash a plane on purpose, and officials questioned whether his recorded prayer would be interpreted in such a sinister fashion if the speaker had been Christian. For months, even as the NTSB stuck by the suicide theory, Egypt continued to press the case for alternate possibilities.

Egyptair Flight 990 and Germanwings Flight 9525 are not exactly the same situation, but they do share a few key elements. In both cases, black box recordings suggest that the person flying the plane caused and/or failed to stop the descent, and in both cases the actual wreckage will be hard to retrieve, meaning that a full review of the plane’s mechanical systems may prove impossible. But in both cases, at least so far, there is also a lack of the kind of evidence that often speaks for suicides after the fact: no note, no explicit evidence of anguish.

The lesson of the Egyptair crash, then, is that the chance is high that Germanwings investigators will never be able to say for sure what happened. The only person who could answer their questions with confidence can no longer do so.

Read next: Why the Black Box Recordings Deepen Germanwings Crash Mystery

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Chile

Heavy Rains Wreak Havoc in Northern Chile, One of the Driest Places on Earth

Residents watch the rising flood waters of the Copiapo River, in Copiapo, Chile, March 25, 2015
Aton Chile—AP Residents watch the rising flood waters of the Copiapo River, in Copiapo, Chile, March 25, 2015

Officials order evacuation ahead of further storms

Heavy rains in the Andes sent flash floods through Chile’s Atacama desert Tuesday evening, leaving thousands without power or running water. The area is normally one of the driest in the world.

Overwhelmed by runoff, the river that runs through Copiapo, Atacama’s capital city, overflowed its banks with more rain predicted over the next 12 hours.

Authorities, fearful of mudslides, urged locals to seek safety elsewhere. Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo advised “anyone in an at-risk zone in the Atacama region” to evacuate, the BBC reports.

Northern coastal towns were hit especially hard. The government described the coastal town of Chañaral as in a “critical” state, while the Antofagasta and Coquimbo regions were affected seriously enough to warrant health alerts.

Military units were deployed in Copiapo to lend assistance, and President Michelle Bachelet rearranged her schedule in order to fly to the besieged city.

Along with causing widespread flooding, the rainstorms also washed out roads and disrupted communications. Local officials say 38,000 residents are without power and 48,000 are without potable water.

TIME Accident

Train Derailment in West Virginia Causes Oil Spill

Train Derailment
John Raby—AP A fire burns Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, after a train derailment near Charleston, W.Va.

Emergency officials ordered some residents to evacuate and conserve water

A train carrying crude oil in southern West Virginia derailed Monday, setting at least one house on fire and spilling oil into the state’s largest river, according to local news reports.

Authorities ordered residents within a mile and a half of the derailment to evacuate, according to WSAZ. The Charleston Daily Mail reports a CSX train went off the tracks at 1:20 p.m. ET, according to a spokesman for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

Following the crash, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for Kanawha and Fayette counties.

“State officials are on site and will continue to work with local and federal officials, as well as CSX representatives, throughout the incident,” said Tomblin in a statement released by his office.

No injuries have been reported, and a shelter was set up at a local high school. The spill into the Kanawha River shut down some sources of water typically supplied to residents and led the state’s health department to ask them to conserve resources.

A variety of state and local offices, including the Fayette County Fire Department, Bureau for Public Health, state police and the governor’s office, are responding to the derailment.

TIME Disaster

Firefighters Battle Massive Blaze Amid Freezing Temperatures in NYC

Largest blaze FDNY has battled since 2006

Around 270 firefighters and emergency medical services personnel were working to contain a seven-alarm fire on the New York City waterfront Saturday.

The blaze, which engulfed a storage building in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, cast thick, black smoke across the New York City skyline.

Firefighters are expected to be on the scene for days and possibly weeks, a FDNY spokesperson told TIME. Attempts to contain the fire were hampered by sub-freezing temperatures and high gusts of wind.

The fire is the largest the FDNY has battled since a 2006 fire at the Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, also in Brooklyn.


TIME natural disaster

Five Years Later, See TIME’s Coverage of the Haiti Earthquake

Haiti cover

The earthquake devastated a nation that was on the verge of achieving long-term economic and political stability

Five years ago on Monday, just as the Caribbean nation of Haiti was beginning to stand on solid footing, the ground beneath it shook. The tremor flattened buildings and killed more than 200,000 people, bringing to a halt the country’s slow but encouraging progress toward economic and political stability.

“Tragedy has a way of visiting those who can bear it least,” TIME’s Michael Elliott observed shortly after, reporting on the earthquake. By then, the devastation wrought by the tremor was coming into focus. The capital city of Port-au-Prince, just 15 miles from the epicenter, had been largely leveled; the National Palace and the city’s cathedral were destroyed; and aid workers were already pleading for international help with messages like this email from Louise Ivers, clinical director for Haiti for the NGO Partners in Health: “Port-au-Prince is devastated, lot of deaths. SOS. SOS … Please help us.”

Support did flow in, in the form of aid workers, foreign aid, and more than $1 billion in charity. But the earthquake set back years of development work in the impoverished country. As TIME reported:

What makes the earthquake especially ‘cruel and incomprehensible,’ as U.S. President Barack Obama put it, was that it struck at a rare moment of optimism. After decades of natural and political catastrophes, the U.N. peacekeeping force and an international investment campaign headed by former President Bill Clinton, the U.N.’s special envoy to Haiti, had recently begun to calm and rebuild the nation.

Starting from scratch, the post-earthquake rebuilding process has made headway. Rubble that covered the ground and blocked transit routes, one of the most tangible signs of the country’s slow recovery in the months after the earthquake, has now largely been cleared. Infrastructure, including a new airport, has been rebuilt. And the number of people living in makeshift tent homes has dropped from some 1.5 million to 70,000, Harry Adam, head of the Department for Construction of Housing and Public Buildings told AFP.

But Haiti, which still hosts the U.N. peacekeeping force known as MINUSTAH (the French acronym for the mission), has a long path ahead. On Friday, the United Nations issued a grim warning of the risks facing the country, the poorest in the western hemisphere. “Persistent chronic poverty and inequality, environmental degradation and continuing political uncertainty threaten achievements Haitians have made over the past five years,” Wendy Bigham, the World Food Programme’s representative in Haiti, said in a statement. Meanwhile, an ongoing political crisis over long-overdue elections has slowed critical recovery efforts and threatens to devolve further. Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, largely credited with overseeing much of the nation’s reconstruction since he took office in 2012, resigned last month amid mass street protests, but his departure has failed to lead to political compromise.

In a statement Wednesday that highlighted the consequences of political instability, the U.N. called for a political compromise by the end of the week “in order to strengthen stability, preserve the democratic gains and ensure sustainable development in Haiti.” Five year’s after the earthquake, Haiti can still scarcely bear more turmoil.

Browse TIME’s special issue about the Haiti earthquake: Haiti’s Tragedy

TIME portfolio

Haiti Earthquake: Five Years After

Haiti continues to feel the effects of the devastating 2010 earthquake

On Jan. 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck Haiti, killing more than 160,000 and displacing close to 1.5 million people. Five year later, scars of the tragedy remain in Port-au-Prince, says photographer Gael Turine, who has spent the last 10 years photographing the country.

“When you walk around the country’s capital Port-au-Prince, you still see half-destroyed buildings around town,” he tells TIME. “The wounds are still here, and everyone says that they’re living in worse conditions than before.”

Given the costs of recovery from such a shattering catastrophe, it might seem logical that an impoverished country such as Haiti would still feel the effects a half-decade later, if it weren’t for the unprecedented help the Republic received in its aftermath. “When you look at the history of humanitarian relief, there’s never been a situation when such a small country has been the target of such a massive influx of money and assistance in such a short span of time,” says Turine. “On paper, with that much money in a territory the size of Haiti, we should have witnessed miracles; there should have been results.”

And yet the situation on the ground is dire, says the Belgian photographer: “Two years ago, there were still refugee camps in Port-au-Prince’s center. Now, they are gone, but the people have been merely displaced. They now live in the city’s suburbs – in these prefabricated shacks – [with] a parallel economy.”

For Turine, the international community has crushed the country’s hopes. “NGOs are pulling out, creditors have stopped investing,” he says. “Haitians find themselves in a social and economic situation that is worse than before the earthquake.” And yet, its people subsist. “I feel there’s this collective energy that comes from how close all Haitians live with each other. There’s this idea of collectivity, which leads to certain neighborhoods taking control of their own fate – cleaning up their streets, opening up their schools, etc. They have been forced to take over from the government, which is unable to offer these services.”

Still, he has no doubt that Haitians will weather the crisis, even as it stretches on. “It’s already a victory to see that the country hasn’t exploded, especially when you see what has happened in the last decades — from Jean-Claude Duvalier to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, from the cholera to hurricanes, the country has faced a succession of social, political and environmental crises,” Turine says. “The fact that Haitians haven’t succumbed to madness shows that they’re resilient.”

Gael Turine is a Belgium photographer represented by Agence VU’.

Alice Gabriner and Phil Bicker, who edited this photo essay, are respectively the International Photo Editor and a Senior Photo Editor at TIME.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

TIME indonesia

Signals Have Been Detected From the AirAsia Jet’s Data Recorders

Adek Berry—AFP/Getty Images Indonesian navy divers, left, prepare to depart from the vessel KRI Banda Aceh to conduct operations to lift the tail of AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 in the Java Sea on Jan. 9, 2015

A salvage operation for the tail section is also under way

Indonesia says it has detected signals from the black-box recorders of downed AirAsia Flight 8501 and is racing to reach them.

S.B. Supriyadi, director of operations for Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) in Pangkalan Bun — the Borneo town that has become the center for search operations — told the BBC, “A ship detected the pings. The divers are trying to reach it.”

A salvage operation involving helicopters and lifting balloons was also launched Friday in a bid to recover the tail section of the jet, which lies at a depth of 30 m (100 ft.) in the Java Sea, about 30 km (20 miles) from where the flight lost contact with air-traffic control, Reuters reports.

Authorities had been hopeful that the flight-data recorders would be found with the tail, since the flight recorders are housed in that section of the Airbus A320-200. But Santoso Sayogo, an official at Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee, told Reuters it appeared the boxes and tail were not together.

The crash of the AirAsia jet — which went down on Dec. 28 with 162 on board as it flew from Indonesia’s second city Surabaya to Singapore — has meanwhile given fresh impetus to the use of ejectable black boxes on commercial flights. These are flight-data recorders that can be deployed from a descending aircraft and float on water, instead of creating the recovery problems that salvage crews are now facing.

Citing an anonymous official from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Reuters reports that ejectable black boxes will be on the agenda at an important ICAO safety conference next month.

“The time has come that deployable recorders are going to get a serious look,” the official told the news agency.

Ejectable data recorders are already used on military aircraft and on many helicopters, but they are more expensive to produce and have not been tested on large commercial jets.

However, some experts believe that transmitting data in real time would be a better option.

“The current fixed recorders are highly reliable and cost effective and it is rare to not recover them,” Mike Poole, a Canadian authority on flight recorders, told Reuters.

TIME Aviation

For the AirAsia Bereaved, the New Year Brings Nothing but Grief

Residents pray for victims of AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 crash on Dec. 31, 2014, in Surabaya, Indonesia
Oscar Siagian—Getty Images Residents pray for victims of AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 crash on Dec. 31, 2014, in Surabaya, Indonesia

Surabaya is a city in mourning

The New Year festivities in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, are traditionally colorful and boisterous — but not this year. This is a city in shock and mourning, its inhabitants struggling to come to terms the loss of 162 lives in the AirAsia disaster.

When Singapore-bound AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 vanished from radar screens, 42 minutes after taking off from Surabaya’s Juanda International Airport on Sunday, there were prayers and tentative hopes. But the airing on live TV of graphic images of dead bodies floating in the Java Sea on Tuesday ensured, for the families of the victims, that New Year will henceforth be a time of grief and mourning.

In Surabaya, an official New Year’s Eve concert was hastily replaced with an interfaith prayer meeting. Nationally, President Joko Widodo urged Indonesians to be restrained in their commemoration of the New Year. The district head in Pangkalan Bun, the town in Indonesian Borneo close to where bodies and debris were found, banned music, fireworks and noisy parties out of respect for the dead.

“Like everyone else, we were shocked,” said Sunu Widyatmoko, CEO of Indonesia AirAsia. “We never thought that the first findings would be of lost ones. We thought we were going to find survivors.”

Seven bodies in total were recovered as of Wednesday night, one of which has been identified as a female, Hayati Lutfiah Hamid, according to Budiyono, chairman of the East Java police’s victim-identification team, who spoke to waiting media. But rough conditions and strong currents in the Java Sea have stirred up sediment at the crash site. Already murky waters have become even more opaque, hampering visibility for divers and making the task of recovery more difficult. Poor weather is likely to persist for the rest of the week, according to authorities.

At the airport on Wednesday evening, officials announced that the crisis center, where family members have been gathering, would be moved to the nearby hospital were incoming bodies will be sent for identification. At a press conference, AirAsia representatives also sought to clear up speculation and rumors that had surfaced since the plane disappeared from radar on Sunday.

AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes said on Wednesday that the plane’s main fuselage had not been located by sonar, nor had a body wearing a life jacket been recovered, despite these being widely reported.

“There’s lots of rumors going around and, until we have official confirmation, what we’ve heard is all speculation,” Fernandes told reporters. “There is no sonar, nothing. There’s some visual identification, but nothing confirmed.”

Throughout Wednesday, men in uniform and mourners watched televised news reports at the crisis center, fueled on sips of coffee and bites of instant noodles from Styrofoam cups. The characteristic Indonesian aroma of clove cigarettes hung heavy in the air.

Dwi Prasetyo Yudo and his wife had traveled to the center at the beginning of the week from their nearby hometown of Malang to show support for their family friend of more than two decades, who lost his daughter on the flight. Local media reported that as many as 35 of the dead were from Malang, including a party of alumni from a Catholic high school traveling with their families.

As night fell, the couple slipped out of the center to visit the airport’s prayer room to gather with fellow Muslims. Dwi said his prayers on New Year’s Eve would be dedicated to “peace in Indonesia.”

Across Surabaya, vigils were held at places of worship to remember the passengers, most of whom were Indonesians of Chinese ethnicity, many of them Christian.

According to pastor Florida Rambu Bongi Roni, based on the names listed on the flight’s manifest, approximately 70% of the people on board Flight QZ 8501 were from Surabaya’s large Christian community.

At Gereja Kristen Indonesia (the Indonesian Christian Church), where Roni is a minister, dozens of mourners squeezed into wooden pews in their humble chapel for a special commemoration service, where they sang Presbyterian hymns, recited the Apostle’s Creed and lit candles in unison.

The church lost three members in the crash, all from the Soesilo Utomo family. The mother, father and son were aboard Flight QZ 8501; their teenage daughter is now an orphan.

“I didn’t have family on the Air Asia [flight], but I can feel what they feel,” said the minister.

During her impassioned sermon, Roni wiped tears from her eyes as she called on her congregation to be more kind in the coming year.

“Caring for others is number one for our lives,” she said. “The tragedy of Air Asia reminds us that we don’t know at what time we will die, so we must make our lives about caring for others and make people happy and full of joy.”

Surabaya resident Yuska Sahertian was among the dozens who attended the evening’s service. A university lecturer, she said at least 15 of her former students had boarded the ill-fated aircraft early Sunday morning.

“It’s very painful,” she said.

As the clock approached midnight, approximately 35,000 people crammed into Graha Bethany Nginden, an evangelical megachurch on the outskirts of Surabaya, to both welcome the New Year and remember the nine members of their community who disappeared when the Air Asia jet crashed into the Java Sea.

Only hours before the service, Pastor Deddy Sutjahjo sat in the empty church and scrolled through Flight QZ 8501’s manifest, pausing to explain how he knew this passenger or who in the church was related to another, as he dabbed the tears from his eyes with a handkerchief and bit his quivering lip.

He explained that many of those who had loved ones on Flight QZ 8501 were still not ready to speak publicly about their losses. Some even appeared to be holding out hope. After all, only seven bodies had been recovered so far.

“We are still praying for them,” he said.

— With reporting by Yenni Kwok

TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: December 29

Mark Wilson—Getty Images The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

Objects Spotted in Hunt for Jet

An Australian aircraft has detected objects that may be related to AirAsia Flight QZ 8501, which vanished Sunday en route from Indonesia to Singapore with 162 on board. The sightings were made near Nangka island, about 700 miles from where contact was lost

What We Know About QZ 8501

In the third Malaysia-linked aviation disaster this year, an AirAsia plane traveling from Indonesia to Singapore disappeared on Sunday over the Java Sea

U.S. Ends Afghan War

The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan ended its combat mission Sunday, marking the formal — if not real — end to the longest war in American history

Greece Fears New Financial Crisis

Greek financial markets reacted negatively on Monday to news that the country’s lawmakers refused to elect a new president, triggering snap elections that may bring to power the radical left-wing Syriza party, which has threatened to default

San Francisco 49ers, Jim Harbaugh Agree to Part Ways

The San Francisco 49ers and head coach Jim Harbaugh have “mutually agreed to part ways,” team CEO Jed York said in a statement on Sunday. York also said the 49ers have already started its search for the team’s next head coach

All Passengers Evacuated From Burning Ferry in Adriatic Sea

All passengers were evacuated off a burning Italian ferry adrift in the Adriatic Sea after the craft burst into flames on Sunday. More than 400 passengers have been safety removed from the vessel, and five passengers died

Box-Office Report: The Hobbit, Unbroken Beat Into the Woods

The two new films were neck and neck: Into the Woods made $15.1 million Christmas day, while Unbroken made $15.9 million. As it turns out, audiences were equally intrigued by the star-studded musical and the Oscar-ready drama

NYC Police Chief Defends Mayor

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said it was wrong for police to turn their backs to a video monitor outside the church where New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke at the funeral of officer Rafael Ramos. “I certainly don’t support that action,” said Bratton

ISIS Executes Nearly 2,000 People in 6 Months

ISIS executed 1,878 people in Syria over the past six months, including 120 of its own members, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Most people killed by the Islamist group were civilians, among them 930 members of a single tribe

Ferguson Police Spokesperson Suspended

A spokesman for the Ferguson, Mo., police department has been suspended without pay after he admitted to calling a memorial for an unarmed black teenager shot to death by a white officer “a pile of trash,” the city said on Saturday

Spokesman: George H.W. Bush to Remain in Hospital

A spokesman for George H.W. Bush says the former President will remain in a Houston hospital for now but that news of a “possible discharge” could come soon. Bush was taken to the hospital on Tuesday for what was reported as a precaution

James Franco and Seth Rogen Live-Tweet The Interview

Twitter already went wild over The Interview when the controversial comedy was released online on Christmas Eve, and now, stars James Franco and Seth Rogen are joining the fray. The actors live-tweeted the film on Sunday

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