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 Blakey, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, said several hours after the plane, a European-made Airbus A300, went down Monday in a residential neighborhood.
There have been documented failures involving the family of CF6 General Electric engines on the plane, though none involved fatalities. The NTSB warned less than a year ago that such a failure in flight _ which could send hot metal fragments tearing through important control systems or fuel lines _ could cause a plane to crash.
The plane went through a routine maintenance check overnight Sunday, and investigators were checking who had access to the plane during those hours.
Investigators also were combing witnesses accounts, including one from a commercial pilot on the ground. That pilot said the jet appeared to have suffered a catastrophic mechanical problem on takeoff, and the pilot apparently was trying to get the ailing jet airborne to return to the airport.
The pilot said he saw the engine catch fire, separate from the wing and fall to the ground, an official said.
While the crash was horrific, 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.
A spokesman for Airbus, the plane's manufacturer, confirmed the pilot could not have dumped fuel before the crash _ this plane holds up to 16,380 gallons _ because the version sold to American Airlines lacks that capability. New York Gov. George Pataki had said earlier in the day that the pilot may have realized the danger in time to dump fuel manually.
An aviation official told the Associated Press that no distress calls or radio transmissions were heard from the cockpit to indicate any problems before the crash.
The chief executive for American's parent corporation, Donald Carty, confirmed that the plane underwent an overnight maintenance check the day before the crash.
"They're probably poring over who was near that plane," said Mary Schiavo, the former inspector general for the Transportation Department.