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Wednesday, September 16, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Divers Search For Lost Lives, Valuables From Swissair Crash

The AP

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia - More than 180 feet under the ocean surface, the jagged edges of a mangled airplane and the broken bodies of its victims greet the navy divers who are combing the seabed off Peggy's Cove.

Mixed among the electrical cables, landing gear and fuselage of Swissair Flight 111 are reminders of the 229 people who died so violently there on Sept. 2 - suitcases, wallets, a child's "Lion King" puppet.

"It was like you were standing in the middle of a landfill. There was just stuff everywhere," said Marcel Maynard, a Canadian navy diver who helped retrieve the jet's flight-data recorder. "It was just busted up so much it didn't look like an airplane."

The murky waters envelop the wreckage like the fog that hovers over the Nova Scotia coast, giving divers views of 40 or 50 feet at best.

Also hidden in the gloom - a treasure trove worth millions. The valuables, including jewels, millions of dollars in cash and a Picasso painting worth an estimated $1.5 million were on their way to Geneva when the jet crashed into the Atlantic, Swissair said.

In part to protect against scavengers attracted by the treasure, Canadian authorities have sealed off the crash site six miles from shore. The bank notes and jewelry - the value of which were not disclosed to the airline, a Swissair spokesman said yesterday - were in a fortified valuables container routinely used to ferry special cargo to and from Switzerland.

The airline yesterday declined to identify the sender and intended recipient of the Picasso work, titled "The Painter," or whether either was a museum or art gallery.

The painting was being shipped as ordinary cargo and so was not in a protected container.

The airline spokesman, Jean-Claude Donzel, said the Picasso and another work of art not identified on the cargo manifest were presumed to have been destroyed in the crash.

More than 200 American and Canadian divers are on the site, and they descend in teams of two.

They spend long hours preparing for the descent into the frigid waters, studying sonar scans of the sites below and dressing in dual-layer wetsuits that pump 170-degree water around their bodies.

The actual descent, by an elevator, takes just five minutes. The divers pass through currents that swirl objects around them - human remains, pieces of wreckage.

Breathing a mixture of helium and oxygen through umbilical-like cords, the divers can spend 30 to 35 minutes on the bottom, being careful that their cords don't get tangled in the wreckage.

They talk to their colleagues on the ships by radio, but a special scrambler must decode their high-pitched, helium-fed voices.

The divers can cover 50 to 100 feet in each mission, not much considering the wreck covers at least a square mile of ocean floor.

During their missions, known as "Operation Persistence," they carry mesh bags to fill with whatever they find.

A few days ago, some divers retrieved a wallet. Inside was a photograph of a man and a boy, the boy wearing a child's cowboy hat.

"These guys are tough, and are doing an incredibly tough job, a hard job, but they all have soft spots," said Lt. Commander Jacques Fauteux, a Canadian navy spokesman, speaking by telephone from the ship on Monday.

Investigators said yesterday that the cockpit voice recorder stopped at the same time as its flight-data recorder, offering further evidence that the plane suffered a crippling systems failure just before it crashed.

Information from The Washington Post is included in this report.

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

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