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Rescuers Lift Body Parts From the Everglades Muck, Recover One Black Box

May 14, 1996 GMT

MIAMI (AP) _ With a sharpshooter scouting for alligators and poisonous snakes, workers recovered the flight data recorder from ValuJet Flight 592 on Monday, along with disintegrated plane parts and human remains no bigger than a knee.

Workers brought in heavy equipment, teams of divers walked side by side, searching the murky swamp inch by inch, and Navy salvage specialists used sonar to look for the plane’s black box recorders.

The data recorder, which could yield clues to the cause of the crash, was being taken to National Transportation Safety Board headquarters in Washington for analysis. It was shipped with the water still in it so the tapes wouldn’t be destroyed by drying incorrectly.

A recovery worker found the data recorder by stepping on it, NTSB Vice Chairman Robert Francis said at an evening briefing. It was bent but in good shape.

The box on the 27-year-old plane recorded fewer details than those on newer jets. Older recorders measure only 11 functions such as speed and altitude.

Francis also said the jet’s engines would undergo a thorough examination but ``an early inspection of both of the engines (shows) that there is no projectile damage apparent, thus no catastrophic damage.″

On its next to last flight, the plane had been delayed in Atlanta by maintenance problems, according to records reviewed by investigators. A worker had to replace circuit breakers for the plane’s fuel pump twice before the plane was cleared to take off.

Francis said he couldn’t ``start to comment″ whether there was any link between the circuit breaker problem and the crash.

The cockpit voice recorder remained buried in the Everglades.

Meanwhile, Federal Aviation Administration documents show that last month the agency issued an order requiring a wiring bundle on all 816 U.S.-registered McDonnell Douglas DC-9s, MD-90s, and C-9 (military) aircraft to be rerouted to ``prevent the potential for a ... fire and uncontrolled smoke throughout the cockpit.″

The FAA said there had been reports of ``chafing found on the wire bundle″ that could lead to damage. The order takes effect Wednesday.

The crew of Flight 592 had reported smoke in the cockpit and cabin just before the crash. However, FAA officials have said they would not speculate on the cause of the smoke.

Seven body bags of remains had been removed by Monday.

``I don’t hold any hope we’ll find any recoverable large parts of people,″ said retired Dade County Medical Examiner Joseph Davis, who is taking part in the investigation.

Victims’ relatives grew restive.

``They should have had a crane or a radar or something. They’ve got that kind of equipment,″ said Raquel Perry, daughter-in-law of crash victim Wilhemina Perry of Miami. ``By the time they get out there, with those alligators and stuff, she’ll be all ate up.″

The Atlanta-bound DC-9 crashed Saturday shortly after takeoff from Miami’s airport with 104 passengers and five crew members.

Investigators said the recovery of the wreckage would be slow because of the difficult conditions: heat in the mid-80s, swarms of mosquitoes and horseflies, razor-sharp sawgrass, and water 6 inches to 5 feet deep over mud that some locals estimate is 30 to 40 feet deep.

``This is tough stuff out there,″ Francis said.

CBS News reported that the FAA was to be investigated as part of an overall probe being conducted in the wake of the crash by the Department of Transportation.

CBS said the Department of Transportation was looking into the possibility the FAA knew Valuejet was headed for trouble before the crash. The network said the FAA declined to comment on the probe.

ValuJet Airlines stock dropped sharply Monday, the first day of trading since the crash and also the first day of intensified federal scrutiny of the Atlanta-based carrier. It closed on the Nasdaq Stock Market down $4.18 3/4 a share at $13.68 3/4.

At the scene Monday, about 30 divers in rubberized suits to protect them from skin-irritating jet fuel walked through the water in shifts that lasted only 15 to 20 minutes because of the grueling conditions. A marksman accompanied them to watch for alligators and water moccasins.

The searchers filled bags with aircraft parts and human remains that Metro-Dade police Cmdr. Al Harper said were no bigger than a knee.

``They’re actually recovering fingers and hands and feet,″ Harper said. ``It would be traumatic for even the most seasoned homicide detective.″

Davis cautioned that it could take up to a week to identify victims and that some might never be identified. A forensic anthropologist and a forensic dentist will help the medical examiner’s office.

Davis said it was possible some of the passengers were conscious when the plane nose-dived into the Everglades about 15 miles from the airport. But the husband of pilot Candalyn Kubeck said he thought the crew was unconscious.

``They passed out from the smoke, based on that eyewitness report that the angle never varied. If that’s correct, they were obviously incapacitated,″ said Roger Kubeck, a pilot at America West Airlines.

Mrs. Kubeck, 35, was believed to be the first female captain of a commercial jet to be killed in a U.S. crash.

NTSB investigator Greg Feith said it was impossible to say whether the crew was conscious. However, he said the Miami airport tower tried twice to contact the plane after the crew’s last transmission and received no response.

He said there were ``one or two radar hits″ after the failed radio calls before Flight 592 disappeared from radar screens.

Family members pressed to visit the scene, but Transportation Secretary Federico Pena said it was still too hazardous.

Exactly how to complete the recovery work remained uncertain. Among ideas being considered were draining a portion of the swamp or extending a dike to the site.

NTSB officials said a fragment of the plane 8 feet long was the largest they had seen. Both engines were found in about 2 feet of water.

Also Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration began an intensive review of ValuJet. FAA inspectors were to ride in ValuJet cockpits and review the company’s maintenance facilities for the next month.

The discount airline has had at least three accidents since it began operations in 1993. The most serious before the Florida crash was a runway fire last year that destroyed a plane and burned a flight attendant.

President Clinton said he directed Pena to report this week on the additional measures the Transportation Department and the FAA plan to take to ensure U.S. airlines ``continue to operate at the highest level of safety.″

``I’m determined to do everything I can to make sure American aviation is the safest in the world,″ he said.