Mayday (2013) s17e08 Episode Script

Terror over Egypt

Do you read me, Metrojet 9268? NARRATOR: Panic grips an Egyptian air-traffic controller.
The altitude just dropped and disappeared.
Do you read me, Metrojet 9268? There's no way to survive.
(SCREAMING) Charred wreckage in the Sinai Desert is all that's left of Metrojet Flight 9268.
Investigators must contend with political tensions and wild rumours.
There was good reason for people to speculate this could have been a surface-to-air missile.
What's that sound? An unusual clue points to a chilling possibility.
Modern aircraft just don't fall out of the sky.
They just don't.
(DRAMATIC MUSIC) (COMMS CHATTER) It's just before 6am at Sharm El-Sheikh Airport in Egypt.
217 passengers are headed to St Petersburg, Russia, some four hours away.
They're flying on Metrojet flight 9268.
The kinds of airlines that you have flying into Sharm El-Sheikh is budget airlines, low-cost carriers.
Very competitively priced specifically for Russian, Ukrainian, other East European tourists, and also people from the UK.
The lure for tourists is a budget beach holiday on the Red Sea, a small oasis at the edge of Egypt's Sinai Desert.
Sharm El-Sheikh is right at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.
Mostly, it's actually good for people who like to scuba dive.
Weather is fairly nice throughout the year.
And all of that put together makes it a very popular destination spot for people.
The Metrojet captain is Valery Nemov, an experienced aviator with 12,000 hours of flight time.
Exterior check complete.
Everything in order out there? All good, Captain.
Standard procedure for pilots everywhere, one of the two of them gets into the cockpit and the other does what they call the walk-around check.
(PHONE RINGS) It's my daughter.
I gotta take this.
I'll make it fast.
First officer Sergei Trukhachev is a former military pilot.
Hi, honey.
Good question.
The aircraft is an Airbus A321, a longer version of the Airbus A320.
Down to your right.
This morning's flight is almost full.
Including the seven crew members, there are 224 people onboard.
That'll never fit.
Let me store it at the back.
Getting everyone's carry-on luggage safely stowed on a near-capacity flight is a challenge.
You'll just need to put that under the seat for now.
And I'll see you tonight.
- All done.
- Good.
Let's get going.
Let's do it.
Sharm El-Sheikh, Metrojet 9268.
Request permission to taxi.
Metrojet 9268, runway zero-four-right.
Metrojet began operations in 1993 under the name Kogalymavia.
In 2011, one of its planes caught fire, three people died and 32 more were injured.
Shortly after, the company changed its brand name.
When Metrojet rebranded itself, Russia was emerging from the aviation doldrums that it hit with the demise of the Soviet Union.
It's come back up again, and Metrojet has been reborn into the new, much-safer era now.
Sharm El-Sheikh, Metrojet 9268.
Requests take-off clearance.
Runway zero-four-right.
Metrojet 9268, cleared for take-off.
Runway zero-four-right.
- 80 knots.
- Check.
- V1.
- V1.
At 5:51am, Metrojet flight 9268 lifts into the air.
The aircraft took off in a standard way.
No problems with the take-off.
No problems with the climb.
The flight path is northeast from Sharm El-Sheikh along the Gulf of Aqaba.
It then heads due north over Cyprus, Turkey, Ukraine, and finally into Russian airspace, ending in St Petersburg.
Total flight time is expected to be 4:40.
Metrojet 9268.
Prepare to contact Nicosia control, local frequency.
Affirmative, Sharm El-Sheikh.
We'll let you know when we've left Egypt airspace.
Twenty minutes after take-off, Egyptian air-traffic control is ready to hand the Airbus over to controllers in Cyprus.
Around about that time it was still climbing.
Look over my schedule for the next few days.
With the seatbelt sign off, passengers are free to move around the cabin.
(BLEEPING) Come in.
(DOOR OPENS) Two cups of tea for two fine gentlemen.
- Thank you very much.
- You are the best.
Since you say so, no charge for the tea.
Flight 9268 reaches cruising altitude, 31,000 feet above the Sinai Peninsula.
The Sinai Desert is about a third of Egypt's size, and Egypt's about a million square kilometres.
So, it's a huge, vast expanse of desert.
All is going smoothly at air-traffic control until at 6:13am, when flight 9268 does something unexpected.
It had gone through 30,000 feet and then, all of a sudden, the radar return changed.
The Airbus seems to be dropping.
Metrojet 9268.
Are you experiencing any difficulties? The initial reaction of the controller is, "Am I seeing something? Am I seeing things? Is this me?" Do you read me, Metrojet 9268? Then, all of sudden, everything just dropped off.
The altitude just dropped and disappeared.
That's when the adrenalin starts kicking in.
Do you read me? (SCREAMING) NBC News has learned Russian air carrier Metrojet flight 9268 disappeared from radar this morning.
Egyptian government officials confirmed to NBC News that the plane has crashed in the northern Sinai Peninsula and that Egyptian Air Force jets have reportedly located the wreckage of this plane.
NARRATOR: As rescuers arrive on the scene, it soon becomes clear that there are no survivors.
All 224 passengers and crew are dead.
Almost all the victims were Russian citizens returning from holiday.
In St Petersburg, news of the shocking disaster spreads quickly.
PA: Departure of Kogalymavia flight 9267 to Sharm El-Sheikh is delayed to 6pm.
The Metrojet crash is the deadliest air accident in the history of Russian aviation.
A nation is demanding answers.
How could it have happened? Airbus aircraft just simply do not fall out of the sky.
So that gets everyone's ears perked up on, what happened here? I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in The Situation Room.
Thousands of foreign tourists, they're stranded right now in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh, their flights grounded.
Russian and Egyptian officials are warning against jumping to conclusions.
In Egypt's Sinai Desert, an international team of investigators gathers near the crash zone of Metrojet flight 9268.
Egyptian investigators will work alongside their Russian counterparts to try to find out what went wrong.
For both nations, the stakes are high.
The Russians, they lost a lot of people onboard that aircraft.
And they don't want the safety of Russian aviation to be impugned.
Egypt, it was in Egyptian airspace that this happened.
And they do not wish their professionalism as an aviating nation to be impugned as well.
- Good to see you again.
- Yeah.
You, too.
So, what have we got? NARRATOR: The team starts by mapping the wreckage, something Stephen Moss has done many times as a senior member of Britain's Air Accidents Investigation Branch.
A wreckage map, or debris trail, is part of the fundamental procedures of air-crash investigation.
This is what we're finding.
The tail section is here.
Wings and forward fuselage are here.
- Almost 5kms apart.
- Good god.
The wreckage of the aircraft spread out over a trail of about 13km long.
The lengthy wreckage trail provides an important first clue.
Mid-air break-up.
Well over 20,000 feet, I'd say.
The size of the debris field tells investigators that the plane broke apart high in the air.
It's the only way wreckage could be spread over such a large area.
If the plane had stayed intact until it hit the ground, the debris field would be much smaller.
What caused Metrojet 9268 to break apart is investigators' first question.
They can see that both of the plane's engines were charred by fire.
The engines were also completely detached from the wings, which double as the aircraft's fuel tanks.
It could have been a fuel tank explosion, like TWA 800.
In July 1996, a Boeing 747 blew apart and fell into the sea minutes after taking off from New York's JFK Airport.
One of the longest air-crash investigations in history found that a short circuit sparked an explosion in the plane's centre-wing fuel tank.
Could something similar have happened in Egypt? At the time, the Egyptian authorities floated the idea that it could have been a fuel-tank explosion.
They've got electrically driven fuel pumps an electrical short circuit sets the fuel alight, wing blows off.
Let's get the wreckage pieces to the hangar so we can take a closer look.
We've already started on that.
What about the black boxes? The black boxes are on their way for analysis.
The aircraft's flight recorders could hold the evidence investigators need.
But accessing and analysing the data will take time.
Before getting any further on the fuel-tank-explosion theory, investigators are confronted with news that could change everything.
Really? There are rumours this was a terrorist attack.
NEWSCAST: It's obviously much too early to pinpoint a cause of this crash, but the area where the plane went down has been the scene of terrorist clashes with the Egyptian military in recent years, including a big one over the summer.
For the longest time, the Sinai Peninsula has been effectively outside of the government's control.
So, any group wishing to find a base of operation would easily be able to mount in its mountains, caves, or just the vast expanse of desert.
Though global tensions cannot be ignored, what investigators need are hard facts.
They don't draw conclusions based on speculation.
That doesn't satisfy me as an investigator, and I don't think that would satisfy any country now.
They would want to see photographs, prove it.
You need to understand why did it happen? Take a look at this.
What is it? This terrorist group is claiming responsibility for the attack.
NARRATOR: A terrorist group affiliated with Islamic State, fighting to seize territory across the Middle East, claims responsibility for bringing down Metrojet 9268.
They say it was in retaliation for Russian military attacks in Syria.
Though there is no proof to back up the claim, there's speculation that attackers used a surface-to-air missile.
When I looked at the debris field, I kept thinking, "Right again.
Another catastrophic, shocking crash as a result of an ignition device hitting the aircraft.
" There was good reason for people to speculate initially that this could have been a surface-to-air missile.
That group has used a surface-to-air missile before, specifically in early 2014 to shoot down successfully an Egyptian helicopter.
They've also posted photographs of different surface-to-air missiles that they have in their arsenal.
After the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, militants raided his weapons depots, flooding the region with Russian-made shoulder-mounted missile launchers.
Investigators need to know if those weapons are powerful enough to hit an airliner at cruising altitude.
These are the missiles they're using.
The plane was flying at 31,000 feet.
What's the range on those missiles? I was just looking at the specs.
Check it out.
They study military documents and make some quick calculations.
They soon have their answer.
It's not possible.
Not with the weapons they have.
It was too high of an altitude to be a surface-to-air missile.
And the initial talk of the possibility of the Islamic State being behind it was dismissed.
(PHONE RINGS) Hello? On TV, now? Thank you.
The first officer's wife is being interviewed.
Just when the missile theory is off the table, another public statement raises a new possibility.
(SPEAKS RUSSIAN) What's she saying? I can't understand a word.
They spoke with the father just before he flew out of Sharm El-Sheikh.
And what did he say? He said there were mechanical issues with the plane.
It's my daughter.
I gotta take this.
I'll make it fast.
Hi, honey.
Good question.
Let's just say I've flown on better.
I did see reports of family members quoting that safety was dubious on this aircraft.
There's only one way to find out.
The fact that the aircraft may have had a lot of problems, you'd have to firstly find out what those problems were.
And, secondly, are they relevant to what we know has happened? Excuse me.
Investigators speak with the aircraft engineer who last serviced the airplane at Sharm El-Sheikh Airport.
What can you tell us about Metrojet 9268? We serviced it for 30 minutes before take-off.
That doesn't sound like a long time.
That's all the time we had to turn it around.
That is a quick turnaround, and low-cost carriers sometimes have to do that.
They work their people hard to turn the aircraft around fast so that that aircraft is in the air as many hours of the day as it possibly can be earning money for them.
How would you describe the plane's condition? No major issues.
It checked out fine.
The aircraft was 18 years old.
It had been through several different owners.
But maintenance engineers insist that the plane was mechanically sound.
Significant incidents maybe in the past? Something like that? It had a tail strike in 2001.
A tail strike is when the rear fuselage of a plane hits the runway during take-off or landing.
Damage can be minor or severe depending on the force of the impact.
It happened during a landing in Cairo.
Pretty major damage.
Now, this would need to be repaired.
And it would need to be repaired very carefully.
And, of course, that would be an area that the investigators would look at very closely.
Maintenance records show that the tail strike damage was repaired.
But investigators have reason to be concerned.
It's not the structural damage itself at the time which is the danger.
It is the repair afterwards.
In 2002, 225 people died when a China Airlines jumbo jet came apart in mid-air.
What happened was the rear-pressure bulkhead failed.
It actually blew the fin off.
A repair of tail-strike damage carried out 22 years earlier ultimately proved to be not strong enough.
Modern airliners are designed to withstand huge changes in atmospheric pressure.
As a plane climbs, air is pumped into the cabin so that passengers can survive the change in exterior air pressure.
On descent, the flow is reversed.
These pressure changes flex the fuselage.
A poor repair, as in the case of China Airlines, could be an accident waiting to happen.
Thank you for the information.
Investigators now wonder if a tail-strike repair from 14 years ago may have fatally weakened the Metrojet Airbus.
If these are not checked on a regular basis, that can end up in the destruction of the aircraft.
So, the tail strike was something the investigators had to look at extremely closely as a possible cause of this accident.
The shattered remains of Metrojet 9268 have been moved from the Sinai desert to a massive warehouse in Cairo.
Let me take a look at this.
Investigators hope the collected debris can tell them if an improper tail-strike repair from years ago doomed Metrojet flight 9268.
It's a daunting task, but they need to know.
Is this China Airlines flight 661 all over again? The tail strike could explain why the tail section was the first piece to break off.
Let's check all the tail pieces we can find.
Good idea.
But then, you'd return to the actual wreckage itself and say, well, is there any indication that the event itself has initiated from the region of the rear-pressure bulkhead? They sort through tail pieces from the Metrojet Airbus.
They focus on the ones that were repaired because of the tail strike incident.
If any mistakes or shortcuts are made during the repair, then that tends to put abnormal or uneven stresses on various parts of the metal structure and that starts the process of metal fatigue and you get cracks.
Fatigue hascertainly to a trained investigator, has quite distinctive characteristics.
No signs of damage around the repair.
After an exhaustive analysis, investigators agree that the structure of the Metrojet plane, including its repaired tail, was perfectly sound.
Something else caused it.
What about the fuel tanks? Still searching for the cause of the mid-air break-up, they return to an earlier theory - fuel-tank explosion.
If there has been a fuel tank explosion, it should be discernible in the outer walls of the fuel tank are being bulged outward.
But the evidence doesn't support a fuel-tank failure.
It's another dead end.
Before long, they also rule out engine failure and all other mechanical failures.
It seems there was nothing wrong with the aircraft.
It just doesn't make sense.
It's frustrating, but that's the way it sometimes goes.
In Russia, families of the victims are still waiting for answers.
The pressure mounts on both Russian and Egyptian authorities.
There's a natural tension when an entire aircraft is lost with everybody onboard being from one state.
The Russian government feels it has to explain to its people what has happened because they're very shocked.
Meanwhile, Egypt on the other hand is saying, "Oh, god This is going to damage our tourism industry.
" The committee is considering with a great attention all possible scenarios for the cause of the accident and did not reach, till the moment, any conclusion in this regards.
Investigators' best hope of understanding why 224 people died now lies with the plane's cockpit voice recorder.
- Ready? - Let's play it.
Sharm El-Sheikh, Metrojet 9268.
Request take-off clearance, runway zero-four-right.
Metrojet 9268, cleared for take-off, runway zero-four-right.
They listen for anything out of the ordinary.
A missed procedure by the crew, or any background sound that might hold a clue.
80 knots.
You can hear everything that the pilots can hear.
The sound of the engines, the sound of the air rushing past.
And you can hear what the pilots are saying to each other.
And if anybody else comes into the cockpit and talks to them, you can hear that, too.
Come in.
Two cups of tea for two fine gentlemen.
- Thank you very much.
- You are the best.
Well, since you say so, no charge for the tea.
Metrojet 9268, prepare to contact Nicosia control, local frequency.
Might as well get comfortable.
I have to look over my schedule for the next few days.
That's it? Everything is going normally - the normal sounds in the cockpit, the normal conversation, and then, suddenly, it stops.
Play the very end again, but this time can we try to take out some background noise? Might as well get comfortable.
I have to look over my schedule for the next few days.
What's that sound? Can you isolate it any more? I have to look over my schedule for the next few days.
There's definitely a sound there.
It's like a Like a bang.
It sounds like the beginning of an explosion.
It's a compelling clue, suggesting an onboard blast.
The team now wants to learn all they can from the crucial recording.
If we can find out where that sound came from, we might be able to figure out what caused the explosion.
There is an event and then it stops working.
Well, that in its own, on itself, is telling you something.
That is saying that there has been a very sudden and violent event.
The cockpit voice recorder has captured what seems to be the sound of an explosion.
To help figure out what could have caused an explosion, investigators first must determine where the sound came from.
The cockpit voice recorders, they're leaving one signature piece of evidence so far.
And that is some type of unknown noise that requires a frequency spectral analysis of the time domain of the noise.
The CVR records sounds in the cockpit from three microphones.
One on the captain's headset, one on the first officer's headset, and one main cockpit microphone between the two pilots.
Hydraulic demand pumps? All auto.
Determining which microphone the blast sound hit first can reveal which side of the plane it came from.
It hit the captain's microphone first, then the central microphone, and after, the first officer's.
So, that means it came from the left side of the plane.
The question is where.
An explosion produces two different types of waves.
A shock wave vibrates through the fuselage at speeds up to 16,000 feet per second.
A much slower sound wave travels through the air at 1,100 feet per second.
Both of these waves are captured by the sensitive cockpit microphones.
Can we see the close-up of the captain's microphone, please? Comparing the timing of the two different waves could help investigators pinpoint the origin of the blast.
That's the soundwave and that's the shockwave.
So, the sound wave hit the microphone just over 100th of a second after the shock wave.
Give me a second.
The small gap in time between the two waves is a huge clue for investigators.
They already know the speed of each wave.
Now, with the time gap, they can calculate exactly how far they travelled.
I think it started at the rear of the plane.
Right here.
At the very left rear of the plane.
That makes sense.
(SCREAMING) (BLEEPING) Clever detective work has revealed where the blast originated.
Now, they want to know what caused it.
They hope wreckage from the rear of the plane can provide a clue.
Look at this! As they re-examine the wreckage, they discover some tell-tale debris.
- What is it? - Take a look.
Several pieces of fuselage peppered with suspicious-looking holes.
I think I saw another one just like that.
Right here! I see what you're thinking.
Guys, clear a space here! Give me a hand! Give me a hand with this! Right in the middle.
Bring that in a bit.
The obvious analogy is with a jigsaw puzzle.
You have all the pieces, but they don't make sense until you start putting them back together again to form a picture.
(DRAMATIC MUSIC) It looks like we found our explosion.
When you put these pieces logically back together, then you can actually see the confines of the hole.
The finding backs up the CVR analysis.
They now have even more compelling evidence of an explosion in the left rear of the plane.
Still searching for the cause of the explosion, they order a chemical analysis of debris from near the blast area.
Airplane crash investigations is about looking deeply into the minutiae, looking deeply into every single possible detail.
What the laboratory forensic chemist would do is to extract that residue off of these components and run it through the instrumentation that would tell you whether you have presence of actual, unbelievably small quantities of undetonated explosives.
The lab tests are conclusive.
There is bomb residue on the wreckage.
Flight 9268 was blown out of the sky by an onboard explosive device.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi makes a public statement blaming terrorists for the deadly air disaster.
(SPEAKS ARABIC) His statement echoes that of Russia's Federal Security Service.
It was a terrorist bombing.
A major piece of the puzzle is now solved.
But important questions about the Metrojet bombing remain.
We know this aircraft was brought down by an explosive.
How did the explosive get onboard and in what form was it? Was it someone onboard? I need a background check on every single one of these passengers, please.
US and British intelligence agencies have revealed that they picked up chatter from English-speaking militant Islamists in the days leading up to the attack.
It suggested something big was being planned for the Sinai.
Take a look at this.
That there was, reportedly, chatter in English indicated that ISIS central's external operations units may have played a hand in this operation.
Maybe this is ISIS.
- Have a look at this.
- NARRATOR: Between 2014 and 2016, Islamic State publishes an online propaganda magazine called Dabiq.
What is this? They have their own magazine? One issue contains a stunning claim.
They say they packed explosives in a soda can.
That's frightening.
But it makes sense.
The quantity of explosives that could logically be secreted in that 12-ounce soda can, depending upon where it is in the aircraft, it would certainly be enough to cause it to crash.
Investigators now wonder if a passenger somehow evaded airport security and smuggled the small device onboard.
This is the passenger who was seated in the area the bomb went off.
You'll just need to put that under the seat for now.
I've already looked into her.
She was 15 years old travelling with her mother.
Absolutely no link to terrorism.
Investigators need to narrow down the suspect list.
They go through the entire passenger manifest, searching for anyone with any possible affiliation to ISIS or any other violent extremists.
The search comes up empty.
The investigative team returns to the wreckage, hoping to pinpoint the exact spot in the rear of the plane where the lethal device went off.
Figuring out precisely where the bomb was placed could help unmask the person who placed it there.
When you have evidence of shrapnel damage on other parts of the structure, it's maybe possible to actually estimate where the centre of the explosion was.
They reconstruct the area of the plane where the blast took place.
They even reconstruct the explosion itself.
You put thin steel rods through the holes caused by the shrapnel and just see where they all coincide, where they all point to.
What that does is it gives you an indication of how the plane was ripped apart at that location.
You will be able to see on pieces of the skin of the aircraft how it has been torn.
That's good.
That makes sense.
It's the oversized luggage compartment in the hold.
So, it wasn't a passenger.
- No.
- Ground crew, perhaps.
Hundreds of people work as ground crew at Sharm El-Sheikh Airport.
They drive trucks, refuel planes, and handle baggage.
Special security clearance gives most of them far greater access to aircraft than any passenger.
Investigators focus on the personnel who were working on the morning of the bombing.
I think we may have found our man.
According to an unconfirmed report, the Islamic State found that one of its members had a relative working in the Sharm El-Sheikh Airport.
This put in motion the possibility of executing an attack at the airport.
There is now ample evidence to support a compelling theory (ELECTRONIC BLEEP) .
about what happened to Metrojet flight 9268.
When the time was right, the Islamic State was able to leverage this relationship and compel this relative, who was a baggage handler, to put a bomb in the plane.
They may have bribed police NCOs to look the other way.
They've done this before in previous attacks and were actually successful in recruiting police officers who were able to feed them necessary information or look the other way.
Once past security, the baggage handler would have no trouble loading the deadly device.
Sharm El-Sheikh, Metrojet 9268.
Request take-off clearance, runway zero-four-right.
Metrojet 9268, cleared for take-off runway zero-four-right.
As the Russian crew is about to head for home, they have no way of knowing that below them in the cargo hold is a bomb set to go off at cruising altitude.
The airplane approaches 31,000 feet.
(BLEEPS) Immediately after the explosion, within a matter of a second or two, the rest of the structure should start to break up.
Do you read me, Metrojet 9268? The plane decompresses from the pressurization.
That is the part that, literally - and I can't say it any more specifically - it rips the plane apart.
There's no way to survive.
The Metrojet event was game-changing for how seriously we have to take security.
(SOMBRE MUSIC) Even before an official report is published on the Metrojet disaster, air-safety authorities call for tighter security screening for airport staff to reduce the odds of such a catastrophe ever happening again.
Is there a screening process to make sure that the staff, over a period of time of employment, are not subverted by outside sources? Have their beliefs changed? Has an organization, like Islamic State, for example, managed to convert somebody who's already in place having been security cleared? They should be throwing greater security resources in human terms and equipment terms.
Is that gonna be costly? Yes, it's going to be.
But do we want to spend money now, or do we want to spend lives later?