WASHINGTON -- The American Airlines jet that crashed in New York lost all or part of an engine in flight, and investigators said preliminary evidence pointed strongly toward mechanical failure rather than terrorism as the cause.
''All information we have currently is that this is an accident,'' Marion C. Blakey, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, said several hours after the plane went down Monday in a residential neighborhood.
There have been documented failures involving the family of CF-6 General Electric engines on the plane, though none involved fatalities. The NTSB warned less than a year ago that such a failure in flight could cause a plane to crash.
While the crash was horrific -- the plane carried 255 people to their deaths and wreckage set several homes on fire in Queens -- the preliminary assessment seemed a relief of sorts for a nation struggling to recover from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and an outbreak of mail-spread anthrax.
In the early moments after the crash, the Pentagon ordered an undisclosed number of fighter planes into the air to step up defensive coverage of the entire country, officials said.
Jet fighters already patrolling the New York City area were directed to fly closer to the crash scene, and additional fighters were launched to supplement them.
In a remarkable sign of the times, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said he had asked President Bush for ''air cover'' to protect his wounded city.
Bush was handed a note informing him of the crash moments after it occurred, and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge moved quickly to the White House Situation room to confer by telephone with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller and others.
Despite a report mentioned by New York Gov. George Pataki that the pilot may have dumped fuel, one senior administration official said it was likely the fuel spilled as the plane was breaking up. This official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no evidence the pilot notified ground controllers of any difficulty, as presumably would have happened if fuel were being dumped intentionally.
At a news conference in New York, Blakey said the plane's wreckage was scattered around an area of Queens, a few miles from John F. Kennedy airport where the flight took off.
One piece of an engine lay on the pavement outside a gasoline station some distance from where other debris came to rest.
A Chicago-based lawyer, Tom Ellis of the Nolan Law Group, said photographs of the surviving engine showed ''pretty clear evidence of an uncontained engine failure.'' His firm sued on behalf of victims of United Airlines Flight 232, which crashed in 1989 in Sioux City, Iowa, after an earlier version of the CF6 engine came apart in flight.
So-called ''uncontained engine failures'' can result in an explosion of metal fragments as damaging as shrapnel from a bomb.
Within hours of the crash, NTSB officials recovered the flight data recorder and flew it to Washington for analysis. The search continued for the cockpit voice recorder and the clues it might yield.
The investigators swiftly reviewed the plane's maintenance records, but initially found ''nothing indicative of a specific problem,'' said Blakey.
American Airlines said the left engine on Flight 587 was freshly overhauled and the right engine was about due for maintenance after nearly 10,000 hours of operation.
General Electric Aircraft Engines, the Cincinnati-based subsidiary of General Electric Co., sent two experts to the crash site. GE manufactured the CF6-80C2 jet engines -- the same model as those installed on Air Force One -- that were mounted on the underside of each wing of the doomed flight.
Earlier this year, on May 18, a problem with the same type of engine forced the emergency landing of a Monarch Airlines passenger jet in Portugal. Documents from the British Air Accidents Investigation Branch said a rotor blade snapped, puncturing the engine's housing with a 3-inch hole and causing minor damage to the wing. The pilots reported dramatic vibration, and British officials reported there had been ''several similar failures prior to this event.''
The FAA ordered airlines in June to begin regularly inspecting these types of engines for cracks in certain rotor disks, a component within the engines, after the dramatic failure of one engine when maintenance crews set it to high power during testing on the ground.
Last year, the FAA also ordered airlines to replace a fuel tube within these engines to prevent high-pressure leaks that investigators warned could result in an engine fire and damage to the airplane. Also last year, the FAA ordered carriers to replace certain fan shafts earlier than planned to prevent possible catastrophic failure.
GE spokesperson Rick Kennedy said American completed all these inspections and repairs. ''Airwor-thiness directives'' from the FAA mandating such repairs are relatively common.
GE has built 2,954 of these engines -- first introduced in 1984 -- and they are among the best-selling for wide-bodied aircraft. Kennedy called the CF6 engines ''phenomenally reliable,'' and said they have been installed on more than 1,000 planes worldwide.
Associated Press writer Jonathan D. Salant contributed to this report.
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