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Monday, September 7, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Divers Recover Flight 111'S `Black Box' -- Plane's Cockpit Voice Recorder Still Sought

The Washington Post

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia - Canadian divers recovered the flight-data recorder from Swissair Flight 111 yesterday amid a huge amount of aircraft debris on the Atlantic Ocean floor that includes what appear to be three large pieces of the fuselage.

The discoveries boosted the pace of the investigation into why the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 plunged into the ocean off Nova Scotia's southern coast while attempting to make an emergency landing at nearby Halifax.

So far the only clue to why 229 people died on the New York-to-Geneva flight Wednesday is that the pilots calmly and professionally reported smoke in the cockpit.

Vic Gerden, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board's investigator in charge, called the discovery of the recorder "a very important step."

The solid-state recorder - encased in a crash-resistant, fire-resistant titanium box - is designed to record as many as 140 aircraft movements and control inputs, and the condition of many aircraft systems at any moment during a flight.

The device, called a "black box" though it is painted orange, was found in 180 feet of water.

Gerden said he did not know the condition of the recorder, which has been flown to the safety board's laboratory in Ottawa. If it is intact, a multinational team of technicians will work 24 hours a day to decipher its data. Their first question will be whether the data is useful and whether a possible loss of electricity aboard the plane just before the crash will mean loss of data.

The plane's cockpit voice recorder has not been found, and Canadian navy Captain Phil Webster said that sonar equipment had failed to pick up any signal from its emergency transponder. The recorder is designed to preserve the cockpit crew's last 30 minutes of conversation.

Divers said the aircraft debris field, lying about six miles southwest of the fishing village of Peggy's Cove, contains one piece about 40 to 50 feet long, another 25 to 30 feet long and another of indeterminate length. Gerden said it was not possible to determine if the cockpit was part of any of the pieces.

Nova Scotia's chief medical examiner, John Butt, said that as soon as the remains of the pilot and copilot are found, they will be tested for fire and smoke injuries or other telltale signs of the problem they faced.

To aid in the recovery, Canadian authorities have asked the U.S. Navy for assistance with a ship used during the recovery operation that followed the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island - the USS Grapple, a salvage vessel that can locate and lift large objects from the ocean bottom. The Grapple left Philadelphia yesterday and is expected in Nova Scotia Wednesday.

Relatives of Flight 111 victims were bused yesterday to a nearby military base to view personal items - clothing, passports, toys - recovered from the Atlantic since the crash.

Butt said that the great number and small size of the remains being found has created an enormous technical challenge, requiring computer software programmers to create a special system to help with identification. Only one intact body has been recovered so far - that of an unidentified woman - along with the largely intact body of an infant.

The DNA analysis - in which tissue samples from the largest of the remains are matched with blood samples from the victims' relatives - has already strained Canadian resources to the point that Canadian officials yesterday asked the U.S. Defense Department for assistance.

In Zurich, Switzerland, Swissair officials said the plane couldn't have made a direct approach to Halifax from where it made the first distress call because it was flying too high and was too heavy.

The call was made 70 miles out of Halifax, but the pilots would have needed 130 miles to make a direct landing, Swissair's chief pilot, Rainer Hiltebrand, said. However, he said attempting to land in Halifax was still better than trying for Boston, which the pilots initially suggested.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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

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