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Thursday, October 3, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mystery Shrouds 757 Crash Killing 70 Off Peru -- Instruments' Failure Stymies Investigators

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

LIMA, Peru - From the cockpit, the grim finale of Aeroperu Flight 603 came framed by a quartet of questions:

"What's happening?" pilot Erick Schreiber coolly asked the tower.

"What's my altitude?

"Why is my ground crash alarm on?

"Am I over land or sea?"

Sea, the tower responded. Schreiber advised his crew to prepare for a crash landing back at the airport. A guide plane was dispatched, but it never arrived in time to lead the Boeing 757 - its navigational system suddenly defunct - back to the fog-enshrouded Peruvian coast.

At 1:10 a.m. yesterday, 28 minutes after Flight 603 had left Lima's Jorge Chavez Airport bound for Santiago, Chile, the plane plunged into the Pacific. With its electronic circuitry haywire and the airline's most experienced pilot at the helm, the 4-year-old aircraft split into two. Its 61 passengers and nine crew members were swallowed up by the darkness off the resort town of Ancon, 40 miles north of the capital, 40 miles out to sea.

"I don't have any instruments," the pilot said, according to Transportation Minister Elsa Carrera.

Coastal residents reported seeing a brilliant burst of light on the horizon about the time communications collapsed between tower and cockpit.

Salvage efforts began immediately. Rescue aircraft reached the area in time to see the plane's lights flicker in the inky waves below. Later, as dawn gave the thick fog a milky glow, search-and-rescue crews came to a sickening realization: It was unlikely that survivors would be found.

All morning, a long frieze of rescue vehicles and gasoline-powered generators lined the beach. A navy frigate, nine coast guard vessels, three helicopters and two planes crisscrossed the area, and crews stood ready to drop inflatable rafts at any hint of a survivor. But none was found.

As the team went about its grisly recovery, using long ropes to pull bodies from the ocean, authorities were stymied: Why, after a few moments of flight, had the instruments aboard the modern airplane suddenly gone down? Was there no way the pilot, a respected veteran with 21,000 flight hours, could have averted disaster?

Few solid details emerged from the chaotic scene. Boeing said it was sending two experts to Lima to help with the investigation - an air-accident investigator and a pilot. And the National Transportation Safety Board offered its laboratories and other technical support.

In Miami, where the flight had originated, Aeroperu's North American general manager I. Mario Siervo offered this account:

The 757 left Lima at 12:42 a.m. for a flight to Santiago that would last about 3 1/2 hours. Five minutes after takeoff, the cockpit crew radioed the tower that "they had an emergency onboard." They requested permission to return to Lima.

The plane then took a north, right-hand loop - part of it over the sea - to return to the airport. For 23 minutes, Flight 603 followed its wide, sweeping arc.

"Airplanes don't turn around like cars," Siervo said. "It takes a while. . . . The accident occurred after the right-hand turn."

At 1:10 a.m., the plane dropped from the radar screen.

Siervo said the 757 was leased from a U.S. company. He said he didn't know the name of the firm, but the plane had been in Aeroperu's fleet for the past two years.

Yesterday's crash was the first in the 24 years the airline has been flying the Lima-Miami route, Siervo said. He added that the plane had passed U.S. Federal Aviation Administration inspections and was maintained according to FAA regulations. The 757 was maintained in Mexico by the airline's sister company, Aeromexico, according to Siervo.

Two other 757s were involved in fatal crashes - one last December, the other in February. Aviation experts said there appeared to be no obvious similarities among the three crashes or any evidence that the 757 suffers from an underlying design flaw.

Even counting the latest accident, the 757's safety record is nearly five times better than that of the world's aviation fleet as a whole, according to Boeing officials.

Since the first 757 was delivered in 1982, the twinjet has recorded a major accident rate of .38 per 1 million departures, said Cheryl Addams, a company spokeswoman.

That compares with a rate of 1.83 accidents per million departures for all jet aircraft between 1959 and 1995, she said.

Today, more than 700 of the 757s are in service worldwide.

Aeroperu said passengers in yesterday's crash included four Americans - Galen Canutsen, Samsina Niis Lindeen, Dennis Trial and Kenneth Vaisman Lichtman. No hometowns were provided.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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