WASHINGTON, DC–Representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board, their "bosoms heavy with melancholia," announced the findings of their investigation of American Airlines Flight 251 Monday, citing "fate's cruel hand" as the cause of the Apr. 10 crash that claimed 411 lives.
"The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft astray," NTSB spokesman Frank Whelan said, "and leave us naught but grief and pain for promised joy. Such was the case when the 747 unexpectedly burst into flames and plummeted to the ground at 7:14 a.m., shortly after take-off from Chicago's O'Hare Airport."
According to NTSB investigators, the London-bound Boeing 747 relayed a distress call at 7:07 a.m., just 12 minutes after leaving O'Hare. Three minutes of desperate radio communication between the pilots and air-traffic controllers ensued before contact was lost and passengers and crew "shuffled off this mortal coil."
Speaking at the press conference, American Airlines CEO Donald Carty expressed sympathy for the victims' families. He stressed, however, that American Airlines accepts no responsibility for "this swipe of God's mighty hand."
"I am deeply sorry this tragedy occurred," Carty said. "But let us ask ourselves, what is so tragic about awaking to life immortal?"
Carty praised the members of the doomed 747's cockpit crew, who "struggled mightily to right the listing ship but were ultimately destined to go to a far better place."
"Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!" Carty said. "But I, with mournful tread, walk the deck my Captain lies, fallen cold and dead."
Based on air-traffic-control records and eyewitness accounts, the crash may have been caused by an explosion in the plane's left engine. Neither the NTSB nor American Airlines, however, plans to investigate.
"The call of death is a call of love," Whelan said. "Death can be sweet if we answer it in the affirmative, if we accept it as one of the great eternal forms of life and transformation."
Victims' loved ones traveled from across the country to attend the press conference, hoping to learn more about the crash or simply share their pain with others.
"Why? Why?" asked Teresa Salton, 34, clutching a hand-knitted sweater her deceased sister had given her last Christmas. "Angela doesn't deserve this. It just makes no sense. It can't be."
Whelan urged Salton and other grief-stricken loved ones not to cry, telling them that they should envy the victims, who "now sing in the choir invisible."
"Out, out, brief candle!" Whelan said. "Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
A Chicago Tribune reporter asked Carty to respond to rumors that the plane's inspection record reveals a history of left-engine problems, and that service documents may have been falsified to allow scheduled flights to continue. Carty shook his head and gazed upward.
"How ridiculous to think we humans can control our own life and death as if setting a clock," Carty said. "One's days are numbered, one's hour is come, one's race is run, one's doom is sealed."
Of the plane's 411 passengers, 53 were children. Carty spoke briefly to the families of these particular victims.
"In To An Athlete Dying Young, A.E. Housman explained best why we should not shed tears upon the graves of these little ones," Carty said. "'Smart lad, to slip betimes away / From fields where glory does not stay / And early though the laurel grows / It withers quicker than the rose.'"
Despite the words of comfort, families of victims expressed anger and confusion over the NTSB's decision to forgo an investigation.
"How can they just do nothing?" asked Elgin, IL, resident Pamela Robinson, whose husband Anthony was on Flight 251. "Something needs to be done. We need to know why this happened."
The NTSB, however, remains steadfast in its refusal. Whelan said he has no interest in searching the crash site for the plane's black box.
"There is special providence in the fall of the sparrow," Whelan said. "If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what isn't to leave betimes? Let be."