Smoke detected on EgyptAir MS804 before crash: French investigators

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EgyptAir Flight Data Suggests Smoke Was Detected on Plane

Smoke was detected aboard EgyptAir Flight MS804 before it crashed but no conclusions are being drawn about the cause, France's air accident investigation agency said Saturday.

The plane's systems sent automated messages indicating smoke a few minutes before it disappeared from radar into the Mediterranean Sea, BEA spokesman Sebastien Barthe told NBC News. "This usually means a fire," he said.

It confirmed an earlier report by industry news site Aviation Herald that data transmissions from the plane revealed smoke in the front lavatory, behind the cockpit.

The ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting) messages suggest the possibility of smoke or a fire in close proximity to the electronics and equipment bay of the Airbus A320, located below the floor of the cockpit.

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Smoke detected on EgyptAir MS804 before crash: French investigators
A still image from video released May 19, 2016 shows EgyptAir Airbus A320 SU-GCC taking off at Brussels, Belgium, September 26, 2015. Mandatory credit The YottaTube/via REUTERS TV ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE.
An employee works at the EgyptAir desk at Charles de Gaulle airport, after an EgyptAir flight disappeared from radar during its flight from Paris to Cairo, in Paris, France, May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
An unidentified woman reacts as she waits outside the Egyptair in-flight service building, where relatives and friends of passengers who were flying in an EgyptAir plane that vanished from radar en route from Paris to Cairo are being held, at Cairo International Airport, Egypt May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
An unidentified man reacts as he waits outside the Egyptair in-flight service building, where relatives and friends of passengers who were flying in an EgyptAir plane that vanished from radar en route from Paris to Cairo are being held, at Cairo International Airport, Egypt May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
An unidentified woman reacts as she waits outside the Egyptair in-flight service building, where relatives and friends of passengers who were flying in an EgyptAir plane that vanished from radar en route from Paris to Cairo are being held, at Cairo International Airport, Egypt May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
The flight path of EgyptAir flight MS804 from Paris to Cairo is seen on a flight tracking screen May 19, 2016. Courtesy Flightradar24.com/Handout via Reuters 
FILE PHOTO - An EgyptAir plane is seen on the runway at Cairo Airport, Egypt in this September 5, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany/File Photo
Unidentified relatives and friends of passengers who were flying in an EgyptAir plane that vanished from radar en route from Paris to Cairo react as they wait outside the Egyptair in-flight service building where relatives are being held at Cairo International Airport, Egypt May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
FILE PHOTO - A general view shows the Terminal 1 at the Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Roissy, near Paris September 17, 2014, where missing EgyptAir flight MS804 originated from. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo
CAIRO, EGYPT - MAY 19: Relatives of passengers onboard missing EgyptAir flight MS804 cry at Cairo International Airport as they try to receive information in Cairo, Egypt on May 19, 2016. Airliner disappeared after entering the Egyptian airspace during its flight from Paris to Cairo. (Photo by Ala Ahmed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
French police officers and a sniffer dog patrol a terminal building at Charles de Gaulle airport, operated by Aeroports de Paris, in Roissy, France, on Thursday, May 19, 2016. Egypt deployed naval ships to search for an EgyptAir Airbus A320 en route to Cairo from Paris that went missing overnight off the coast of the North African country with 66 people on board. Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A screenshot from Flightradar24.com showing the flight track of EgyptAir flight MS804 from Paris, France, to Cairo, Egypt. The Airbus A320 with 66 people on board disappeared from radar on May 19, 2016. TASS (Photo by TASS\TASS via Getty Images)
Egypt's Aviation Minister Sherif Fathy speaks during a press conference on May 19, 2016 at the Ministry of Civil Aviation at Cairo's airport after an EgyptAir flight from Paris to Cairo crashed into the Mediterranean sea with 66 people on board. The Airbus A320 fell 22,000 feet and swerved sharply twice in Egyptian airspace before it disappeared from radar screens, Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos told a news conference. Fathy said he could not rule out either terrorism or a technical problem. / AFP / KHALED DESOUKI (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)
An employee sits at EgyptAir Airlines check in desk at Charles de Gaulle airport, operated by Aeroports de Paris, in Roissy, France, on Thursday, May 19, 2016. Egypt deployed naval ships to search for an EgyptAir Airbus A320 en route to Cairo from Paris that went missing overnight off the coast of the North African country with 66 people on board. Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CAIRO, EGYPT - MAY 19: Travelers come and go from terminal 3 at the Cairo International Airport on May 19, 2016 in Cairo, Egypt. EgyptAir flight MS804 from Paris to Cairo carrying 66 passengers and crew vanished over the eastern Mediterranean last night. (Photo by David Degner/Getty Images).
Egypt's Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathy speaks, after EgyptAir plane vanished from radar en route from Paris to Cairo, during a news conference at headquarters of ministry in Cairo, Egypt May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Unidentified relatives and friends of passengers who were flying in an EgyptAir plane that vanished from radar en route from Paris to Cairo react as they wait outside the Egyptair in-flight service building where relatives are being held at Cairo International Airport, Egypt May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Egypt and EgyptAir flags are seen infront of an Egyptair in-flight service building, where relatives of passengers who were flying in an EgyptAir plane that vanished from radar en route from Paris to Cairo are being held, at Cairo International Airport, Egypt May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
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"We can confirm that these data messages are genuine, they are real," Barthe said. "There are five or six reports of smoke from the front of the aircraft, close to the cockpit. We are not putting any interpretation on this information or what is the cause of the smoke."

He added that the priority for investigators was to the find jet's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder - the "black boxes."

The plane, carrying 66 people, crashed in the Mediterranean Sea Thursday. Wreckage was found Friday some 180 miles north of the Egyptian coast.

Terrorism has been cited as a possible cause — though officials have cautioned against speculation and there has been no credible claim of responsibility from any group.

The ACARS messages could have been triggered by a false indicator such as condensation or a wiring fault.

"The messages were all from the front of the plane but we do not know if the smoke was only in this place, it depends on the location of the detectors," Barthe said.

No mayday call was sent from the jet.

Related: EgyptAir Debris, Passengers' Belongings Found

Former National Transportation Safety Board investigator Greg Feith said the fact that the smoke warning occurred so soon before the plane disappeared suggest something more catastrophic than a discarded cigarette or electrical fire.

"Electrical fires don't burn that fast, and of course if somebody were to put a cigarette in a trash can with paper towels it definitely wouldn't have burned that fast," Feith said.

"It would have set off the sensor but the flight crew is trained to handle those types of fires and it would have given them time. Plus, they probably would have made a radio call," he said.

Related: Deep Seas, Underwater Mountains Could Slow EgyptAir Search

However, David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine, said the pilots may have been too distracted to raise the alarm with air traffic controllers.

"There may not have been an indication on the flight deck just at the time the data link was connected," he told the BBC, adding: "When you smell smoke, the first thing you do is think 'What's that?' - you don't necessarily say anything until you've established what's happening.

"When the computers start to fail, you get so busy trying to work out what's happening and what you're going to do about it that you don't want to talk to anybody."

He added: "Fire, for aviators and mariners, has always been the enemy you fear most."

Meanwhile, investigators are looking at anyone with access to the EgyptAir plane while it was sitting on the ground, including baggage handlers, caterers, cleaners and fuel truck workers.

The plane was on the ground at four different airports in the 24 hours before the crash — in the Eritrean capital Asmara, Cairo, Tunis and Paris.

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