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Search for cause in Korean Air crash focuses on pilot error

August 8, 1997

AGANA, Guam (AP) _ The pilot of Korean Air Flight 801 appears to have inadvertently steered the jet straight into a hillside, rather than having lost control, a lead investigator into the deadly crash said Thursday. A South Korean newspaper report suggested fatigue was a factor.

Giving weight to the theory of pilot error, NBC reported Thursday evening that a preliminary analysis of the voice and flight-data recorders showed the pilot mistook a landing beacon on a hilltop 3 miles from the airport for the airport itself, and came in for landing at that site as if nothing were amiss.

National Transportation Safety Board agents who arrived in Guam early Thursday cautioned against drawing conclusions too soon about the crash, which killed more than 200 people, saying they would look into a multitude of possible causes _ equipment failure, pilot training and fatigue and bad weather, among them.

``It takes about a year to determine the probable cause of an accident,″ NTSB board member George Black told reporters under a tent set up within sight of the crash.

But Black told NBC’s ``Today″ that pilot error may have been to blame because the pilot appeared to have complete control of the jet when it plowed into the hill early Wednesday on approach to Guam International Airport.

``Controlled flight into terrain is usually an error on someone’s part, and it does have all the earmarks of controlled flight into terrain,″ Black said in a telephone interview from Guam.

The NBC report said the pilots were so sure they were just over the airport that they lowered the plane’s landing gear, thus deactivating the warning system that sounds when a craft is too close to the ground. Other media, however, including the Washington Post and ABC, said the alarm, which barks out the order ``Pull up, Pull up,″ had in fact gone off seconds before the crash.

Shim Yi-Taek, vice president of Korean Air, said there was not enough evidence yet to speculate on the cause of the crash, adding that he was upset an NTSB official had done so publicly.

``I will be lodging a complaint to the NTSB. They should not be making these speculations,″ he said.

The investigation was complicated by widely differing survivor accounts. Some said the plane shook wildly in the moments before the crash and a flight attendant said she saw flames. Others said there was no sign of trouble until impact.

``I still hear the screaming children in my mind and I am still in shock,″ said passenger Hong Seong, an American businessman, who suffered a collapsed lung in the crash.

At least 28 people survived the crash on this tropical, U.S.-governed Pacific island. The plane was carrying 254 passengers, including 13 Americans, when it went down in a rainstorm.

The South Korean national daily, Chosun Ilbo, reported Thursday that Flight 801′s pilot, Park Yong-chul, 44, wasn’t given enough time to rest before the flight. It also said he was not familiar with the rough terrain around the airport.

Without citing a source, the newspaper said he had flown to Guam just hours after a flight from Hong Kong. Before that, the paper said, he had flown to and from Australia. That totals about 33 hours of flight time, though the newspaper didn’t clarify over what period the flights took place.

Korean Air flight manager Kim Sin-jung denied the report, but acknowledged that Park, a retired air force major, was assigned to the Seoul-Guam route for the first time July 4 after a three-year hiatus.

``The suggestion that the pilot is less experienced is simply incorrect,″ the official said.

Shim, the Korean Air vice president, denied that the pilot was fatigued. ``There are regulations on all this, and we abide be them,″ he said.

By mid-afternoon Thursday, more than 100 bodies had been recovered from the dense green crash site that was littered with wreckage. It was uncertain whether all the recovered remains could be identified.

``In some cases, not a whole body was recovered. And in some cases, it was two pieces or three pieces,″ said Gary Abe, deputy NTSB director.

Dental records, fingerprints and other means will be used to help identify the remains, he said. Families were also asked to submit physical descriptions of their relatives.

Hundreds of family members were in Guam on Thursday, either to wait for authorities to identify the dead or _ for a few _ to comfort injured loved ones.

Many were angry that bodies still remained at the crash site and that those recovered hadn’t been identified. Some people demanded that they be allowed to dig through the wreckage themselves to claim their relatives.

Following relatives’ complaints that the investigation into the crash cause was taking precedence over body retrieval, officials permitted a selected group of relatives to tour the crash site.

There were differing reports on the number of survivors. Guam hospitals said 29 people survived, but the South Korean Health Ministry put the number at 28, saying a South Korean man died Thursday from burns. The hospitals denied anyone from the crash died Thursday.

Korean Air said the survivors included four Americans: Hong Seong; Grace Chung, of Marietta, Ga.; Angela Shim; and Jeannie Shim.

Eight survivors were flown to the South Korean capital of Seoul on Thursday night.

The plane was carrying mostly Korean tourists, including many families heading to Guam’s tropical beaches for vacation.

The Boeing 747-300, delivered used to Korean Air in 1984, had attempted a landing at an airport that lacked both a main landing system and a government-staffed control tower. Officials have said they would look into both as part of their investigation.