Sunday, September 6, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Relatives Of Swissair Crash Victims Send Wreaths Out To Sea


HALIFAX, Nova Scotia - Some sobbing and stumbling, others shivering silently in a brisk breeze, relatives of Swissair Flight 111's victims sent wreaths out to sea yesterday and carried away jars of water from the ocean where their loved ones died.

Offshore from the rocky ledge where the mourners stood, there was a potential breakthrough in the search for the jet's missing flight recorders, which could provide clues into the cause of the crash late Wednesday that killed all 229 people aboard.

Search commanders said a Canadian submarine had detected signals coming from one of the recorders. Divers working at a depth of 190 feet tried to pinpoint the location, but were hindered by limited visibility and planned to resume the hunt today.

Crash investigators released excerpts of the final conversation between the plane's pilots and air-traffic controllers in Moncton, New Brunswick.

The pilots reported smoke in the cockpit 16 minutes before the crash, then spent 10 minutes getting directions for a rapid descent from 33,000 feet and for dumping fuel into the ocean before heading toward an emergency landing in Halifax.

The plane made two sharp turns, then communications ceased six minutes before the plane hit the water. The crew's last words were: "We are declaring an emergency . . . we have to land immediately."

"All of the conversations were very professional," said Vic Gerden, the chief crash investigator. But he said communications became less clear in the last stages, suggesting the pilots may have donned smoke masks that affected their speech.

In all, more than 300 family members have flown to Halifax from New York, the plane's starting point, and Geneva, its intended destination.

The day began with an expanded effort to search the ocean floor for the plane's fuselage and flight recorders. The HMCS Okanagan, a Canadian submarine, was deployed for a second day to make a sonar map of the seabed, and 75 police and military divers were in action for the first time.

Lt. Commander Mike Considine, a navy spokesman, said searchers still had found no piece of wreckage larger than a car roof.

Security forces have barred people, boats and planes not involved in the search from the entire search area, including several miles of coastline. About 250 soldiers were combing the shoreline in search of debris and body parts.

The process of identifying the bodies was expected to take weeks. Swissair's chief executive officer, Jeff Katz, told a news conference late Friday that the three-engine MD-11 had been well maintained.

He said Swissair had complied with all directives from U.S. aviation officials advising of wiring problems in MD-11 jets. Two such advisories in 1996 and 1997 warned of potentially hazardous wiring in the cockpit and in a rear console for flight attendants.

The pilot of Flight 111 reported smoke in the cockpit shortly before the crash. The plane began heading toward Halifax to attempt an emergency landing, made a couple of turns while descending and dumping fuel, then disappeared from radar.

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


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