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Pilot of Red Sea 737 crash a Man of Mystery

g and compass

San Diego Union-Tribune

Local victim in Red Sea crash a man of mystery

By Jeff McDonald


January 8, 2004

His life was rooted in parallel worlds, and friends say Ashraf Abdelhamid traveled through each with equal parts savvy, style and mystery.

Last weekend, Abdelhamid, 42, was apparently in the cockpit of a chartered Boeing 737 that crashed nose first into the Red Sea. He and 147 others, mostly French tourists, were killed instantly.

The son of an Egyptian diplomat who made his home in Pacific Beach, Palm Springs, Cairo and sometimes England, Abdelhamid was a devoted Muslim and an astute San Diego businessman.

He was a dual citizen of Egypt and the United States, a committed husband and a one-time fighter pilot. He also was a Freemason, an intelligence officer for the National Guard, a security expert and a government-trained cavalry scout, depending on the circumstances.

News of his death has been circulating all week among San Diego pilots, business owners, Freemasons and other acquaintances, who described separate pieces of a complicated, enigmatic existence.

Abdelhamid's wife of 11 years, Madeline Witney of Palm Springs, heard about the crash on the news as she was driving to work Sunday and immediately began worrying that her husband was somehow involved. Later that day, it was all but confirmed.

"He was the sort of man who could hold court," she recalled. "If there were two people in a room, he could hold their attention; if there were 2,000 people, he could hold their attention."

Witney met Abdelhamid in San Diego in 1990. He was an Egyptian-born, divorced father of two girls, and she was a transplant from England. They married two years later.

"He was just dynamic, extremely intelligent," Witney said.

But even Witney admits there were gaps in what she knew about Abdelhamid. He was interested in many things and involved in endeavors of all kinds. There were long stretches of time spent apart.

She last saw her husband in September in London, where he caught a plane bound for Cairo and she was flying to San Diego. She spoke to him New Year's Eve and was counting the days until his return. He was due to arrive at Lindbergh Field yesterday.

An accomplished pilot who flew jets for the Egyptian air force when he was in his 20s, Abdelhamid was in Cairo to finish his commercial aviation training, his wife said.

His family owns Flash Airlines, the charter service shuttling tourists to Paris at the time of the crash, she said. The couple were talking about where they would live once he earned his license to fly large passenger jets.

No one from Flash Airlines could be reached for comment. The company did not return phone, e-mail and faxed messages. Investigators ruled out terrorist attack and pilot error as causes of the accident and instead are pointing to mechanical failure.

Friends say Abdelhamid was keenly interested in subjects and events the world over. He owned two businesses in San Diego, a janitorial service and a company that cleaned construction sites, they said. He worked on a master's degree in his spare time.

"We did a lot of talking about history, the ways of the world, general philosophy," said Fred Kleyn, a retired Navy officer from Spring Valley who knew Abdelhamid through San Diego Masonic Lodge No. 35.

"He was one of those guys that wears their clothes out from the inside," Kleyn said. "He was always in motion, always on the go, doing, thinking, very animated."

Abdelhamid worked part time as a security guard for the San Diego Convention Center between 1997 and 1999, and held current firearms, baton and guard permits from the state Bureau of Security and Investigative Services.

He also had a foreign-based transport plane pilot's license, although one friend said he lost his job as a cargo pilot after the September 2001 terrorist attacks because of his ethnicity. U.S. government officials interviewed him after those attacks.

"He was a Muslim and he flew planes, so yeah, he had a tough time," said Paul McMullen, a longtime friend who met Abdelhamid when the latter owned a security company that did work for one of McMullen's former employers, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

"He made enough money in his business practices to pursue hobbies like you and I might pursue a career," said McMullen, who last saw Abdelhamid in August. "He went after things that most people never really pursued."


Jeff McDonald: (619) 542-4585; jeff.mcdonald@uniontrib.com

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