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Thursday, September 3, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pilot Warned Passengers Before Crash -- 137 Americans Among Dead

The AP

PEGGY'S COVE, Nova Scotia - A Swissair pilot reported smoke in the cockpit, dumped tons of fuel and was preparing for an emergency landing before his jetliner crashed into the ocean off Nova Scotia, killing all 229 people aboard, including 137 Americans.

Minutes before the crash, the passengers had been told to put on their lifejackets and get ready for an emergency landing, a Swissair official said.

Flight 111 from New York to Geneva plunged into the Atlantic last night after leaving Kennedy International Airport at 8:17 p.m. It carried 215 passengers - including two infants - and 14 crew.

Searchers located a chunk of the plane's fuselage under 100 feet of water.

The McDonnell Douglas MD-11 reported problems at 33,000 feet, then descended to roughly 8,000 feet before disappearing from radar about 30 miles south of Halifax International Airport, said Philippe Bruggisser, chief executive officer of Swissair's parent group.

He said the 137 Americans killed included 136 passengers and one crew member.

It took about 16 minutes from the time the crew first reported smoke in the cockpit to when the plane disappeared from radar, according to Roy Bears, an investigator with the Canadian Transportation Safety Board.

The plane was only seven to 10 minutes away from reaching Halifax when it crashed. Earlier, Swissair officials said the plane went down at 9:20 p.m. EDT.

On the ground, people reported hearing sputtering noises from an aircraft passing overhead and then a thundering crash.

"The motors were still going, but it was the worst-sounding deep groan that I've ever heard," said Claudia Zinck-Gilroy.

Dozens of fishing boats and coast-guard ships immediately headed out in driving rain to the crash site, about six miles off the coast of Peggy's Cove, a picturesque fishing village.

A number of bodies were recovered wearing lifevests, according to Bruggisser.

Divers were using sonar to try to locate the black box, which gives technical data on the flight, Bears said, adding that the debris was in water that varied from 70 to 150 feet deep.

The White House and the FBI said there was nothing to indicate that terrorism was involved. President Clinton, who was visiting Northern Ireland today, was being regularly briefed.

Heavy surf - a remnant of Hurricane Danielle - hampered the first hours of the rescue effort. Drenching rains continued all night, easing at dawn.

The three-engine plane dumped tons of fuel over nearby St. Margaret's Bay before crashing, The Canadian Press quoted an airport worker as saying.

Bruggisser said the pilot, Urs Zimmermann, 50, apparently had to decide whether to try to make Halifax or head back to Boston.

Shortly after the jet switched from American to Canadian air traffic controllers, the pilot radioed that he had a problem, an aviation source in Boston told The Associated Press.

The controllers told him he was 190 miles from Boston and 40 miles from Halifax, so he continued on to Halifax, the source said.

Canadian experts are leading the investigation into what caused the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board in Washington sent 10 experts to Canada and experts from Switzerland also were flying in.

Boeing, which acquired McDonnell Douglas last summer, also is sending an investigative team. Boeing is liable for the plane's performance - and the performance of all Douglas products - even though it was built before Boeing acquired the company.

Key members of Boeing's investigative team "will be people who know the plane best," said Sean Griffin, Boeing spokesman. The leader of the Boeing group will be Steve Lund, an investigator based at the former McDonnell Douglas plant in Long Beach, Calif.

Dr. Jonathan Mann, a former professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and a pioneer in the fight against AIDS, was among the dead, according to the World Health Organization.

The United Nations said seven U.N. workers returning to headquarters in Geneva were on board. Flight 111 was often used by U.N. staff.

"It was like a U.N. air bus," said spokesman Fred Eckhard in New York. "Even before we got confirmation that there were U.N. staff on the flight, we just knew from the identification of the flight that there would've been some of our people on that plane."

Swissair ordered safety checks on its 15 remaining MD-11 planes, but said it had no plans to take the craft out of service.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter Chuck Taylor contributed to this report. Friends and relatives from within the U.S. and Canada inquiring about passengers on Swissair Flight 111 should call 1-800-801-0088, Delta said.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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