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Pathologists Continue Effort To Identify Challenger Crew Remains

March 11, 1986 GMT

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ The grim work of identifying the remains of some of Challenger’s crew continued today while calmer seas allowed a large salvage ship to resume the search for additional body parts and debris from the space shuttle.

Searchers hope to recover from the cabin compartment three magnetic tapes that recorded performance of some of Challenger’s systems and could provide evidence on the cause of the explosion 73 seconds after liftoff Jan. 28.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has maintained tight secrecy about the search since it announced Sunday that astronaut remains had been found in the broken crew cabin at the bottom of the Atlantic.

The agency has not acknowledged that remains have been recovered, but sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said some bodies or parts of bodies were brought secretly to Port Canaveral on Saturday night aboard the Navy salvage ship USS Preserver, which came in without running lights.

The sources said the remains were transferred to a hospital at Patrick Air Force Base, 25 miles south of here, and that forensic experts began examining them Monday.

NASA said it would respect family wishes and remain silent until the recovery and identification processes are completed. It was not clear what NASA would do with the remains once they were identified.

Winds that whipped up 8 foot waves prevented Preserver’s divers from returning to the ocean bottom Monday and the ship returned to port in late afternoon without recovering additional material.

But the wind died down today and the Preserver left for the search area at midmorning.

Private boats were barred from an area two miles around the search area, and private planes were kept five miles away. Sections of the cabin were found 18 miles northeast of Cape Canaveral at a depth of 100 feet.

The accident killed New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe; commander Francis R. Scobee; pilot Michael Smith; and crewmembers Judith Resnik; Ronald McNair; Ellison Onizuka; and Gregory Jarvis.

The sources did not know if the remains of all seven had been located.

Astronaut William Thornton, who twice flew aboard Challenger, said Monday he wouldn’t fly on the shuttle under the cold-weather launch conditions that have figured in the investigation of the explosion.

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But Thornton said in a lecture at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, N.C., that he was not angry at NASA officials who authorized the launch. He mentioned the explosion only briefly during his lecture, describing it as ″an unfortunate lapse″ in the record of manned flights.

″You have to remember that we are sitting on one of the largest explosive devices ever made,″ Thornton said. ″There is simply no other way to get there (to space).″

The pathology examinations were not only for examination, but also could help determine whether the astronauts were burned to death, poisoned by fumes, died from sudden loss of cabin pressure, were killed by flying debris or by impact with the water, or drowned.

Determining the exact cause of death might be difficult because the bodies have been in the water nearly six weeks and may have been the victims of sea scavengers.

But Ms. Resnik’s father, Marvin, said NASA believed the bodies could be identified even though they did not appear to be in one piece, The New York Times reported today.

The sources reported several of the crewmembers’ private effects had been recovered, including tape recorders on which they had planned to record their impressions of the flight.

The crew cabin is a 2,525-cubic-foot, three-level structure made of 2,219 aluminum alloy plates welded together to create a pressure-tight vessel. It has no special reinforcements to help withstand an explosion, but is stronger than much of the fuselage because it is a single welded unit.

Another search ship, the Stena Workhorse, used a robot submersible to recover a second large chunk of Challenger’s left booster rocket Monday despite the bad weather. The piece measured 10 feet by 7 feet, the Navy said.

The left booster debris is being recovered from 210 feet of water as a dress rehearsal for the much more difficult task of retrieving pieces of the right rocket located in 1,200 feet of water.

The right rocket is the chief suspect as the cause of the accident. Photographs show a puff of black smoke spewing from the area of a rocket joint on liftoff and a flame gushing from the same area 15 seconds before the explosion.