Tuesday, September 8, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Last 6 Minutes Of Flight A Mystery -- Hints Of Power Failure On Data Recorder; Rough Seas Hamper Voice-Recorder Rescue

The AP

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia - Experts say the "black box" flight-data recorder retrieved from the wreckage of Swissair Flight 111contains no information from the final six minutes of the doomed flight.

Crash investigators had high hopes after the data recorder was recovered from the ocean floor Sunday. But laboratory examinations yesterday revealed that there were no data from the last minutes before the MD-11 jumbo jet plunged into the sea off Nova Scotia late Wednesday, killing all 229 people aboard.

Vic Gerden, the chief crash investigator, said the data recorder stopped once the plane dropped below 10,000-feet altitude. A power failure seems probable, he said.

In a scare last night that was reminiscent of last week's crash, a charter plane belonging to a subsidiary of Swissair's parent company returned to Halifax shortly after reporting smoke in its galley.

The Balair/CTA Airbus A-310 was on a flight from Zurich to Vancouver via a scheduled stop in Halifax with 144 passengers on board, SAirGroup spokeswoman Beatrice Tschanz said in Zurich. The smoke was caused by a short-circuit, she said.

"It was not an emergency landing" and there were no other problems, Tschanz said. The plane continued to Vancouver early today, she said.

In Halifax yesterday, Gerden said the data recorder from Swissair Flight 111 was in good condition and should provide useful evidence about 100 types of information ranging from altitude and airspeed to whether the plane's smoke-warning lights were on.

The data recorder, found at a depth of 190 feet, nearly didn't make it to the surface. Navy Capt. Phil Webster said one of the two divers developed a leak in his suit, and the pair had to make an ascent - clutching the black box - much more rapidly than is considered safe.

One of the divers became ill from the rapid change in pressure. Both were put in a decompression chamber, then taken to a hospital. Both are recovering at home, Webster said.

At the crash site, in the Atlantic five miles off shore, divers equipped with hand-held sonar searched yesterday for the plane's other black box - the cockpit voice recorder. Signals from the device have been detected, but bad weather forced suspension of the diving until tomorrow at the earliest.

If retrieved intact, the voice recorder would reveal other noises in the cockpit besides the pilots' conversation with controllers, portions of which were released Saturday. That conversation was cut off 10 minutes after the pilots reported smoke in the cockpit and minutes before the crash.

Divers also were trying to confirm if three large pieces of wreckage found near the flight-data recorder are sections of the plane's fuselage.

Several hundred family members have come to the area to visit Peggy's Cove, attend memorial services and assist medical teams in trying to identify badly fragmented human remains retrieved by searchers.

About 1,400 military personnel are involved in the search, and some 200 stress counselors have been assigned to support them.

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


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