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Special Event

NTSB Chairman Jim Hall Holds News Conference on Alaska Airlines Flight 261 Crash Investigation

Aired February 8, 2000 - 2:01 p.m. ET


DONNA KELLEY, CNN ANCHOR: We are waiting for the start of a briefing in Washington by the National Transportation Safety Board on the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261.

And our Carl Rochelle is standing by with what we can expect to learn -- Carl.

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Donna, we expect the briefing to start momentarily. We're told they're pretty much on time; expecting a two-minute warning, so we should get that soon.

Here is what this particular briefing will be concentrating on: the flight data recorder, the readout from the flight data recorder from the Alaskan Airlines Flight 261 that went down. And also we'll get a look at some of the radar data. We are told that there will be some information about the radar data that apparently shows a piece breaking off from the airplane, something that was captured by the radar tracks as they were looking at them about four miles from the airplane, appearing to be fluttering on the wind, possibly a piece of the airplane that broke off in flight as it was heading down. That is one of the questions that the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.

Now, we do know from briefings last week that the vertical stabilizer and horizontal stabilizer, at least parts of it, are on the ground in the area where the crash field has set up. And part of it will be retrieved along with the rest of the debris from the bottom, or at least the rest of the debris that they decide to retrieve from the bottom.

Very interesting is the sounds that were reported from the cockpit voice recorder: two loud noises, one reported by the flight attendants to the crew, who also reported hearing it; a second loud sound about a minute before the plane went down, described to this reporter as perhaps the sound of metal breaking. That could conceivably be along the lines of some part separating from the aircraft. And if that is true, it could explain the crews lack of ability to control it.

Point out that Alaska Airlines has had some other difficulties. There was one MD-80 that returned to Reno over the weekend because it had some problems with the vertical stabilizer. Safety Board took the flight data recorder and the stabilizer trim assemblies out of that and are investigating that. Perhaps a report on that today if they are finished with that.

And last night, late Monday, there was another Alaska Airlines plane that made a return landing to the airport at San Francisco because -- I'm told they are coming in so I'll continued to tell you about that while we -- the people come in. That plane returned after having some problems with its engine. We are told by Alaska Airlines that the engine was replaced and that airplane is expected to be put out of service.

What you are seeing being wheeled out in front is the flight data recorder, the orange-colored box that the flight data recorder is in, and that's being set up on the table here in front of us, and we'll get some information on that. Chairman Jim Hall of the National Transportation Safety Board is to do the briefing today.

Now, remember, the orange case you see is not the recorder. That is what they call the dust cover, the dust case that it is in. What is being lifted out now is the actual flight data recorder itself. And we were initially told that it had 48 parameters in it, and we'll learn more about that -- cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, cockpit voice recorder on the right, Donna.

KELLEY: Carl, I would imagine that the technology is good enough that when they get these radar pictures, they can actually and probably enhance and enlarge those pictures to be able to see exactly what they think may have fallen off the plane there.

ROCHELLE: May not be quite that easy, Donna, because the radar picture is in fact a radar hit, if you will, a bounce off of the radar screen.

Here's NTSB Chairman Jim Hall.

JIM HALL, NTSB CHAIRMAN: Good afternoon.

As you know, the National Transportation Safety Board has been investigating the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, a McDonnell- Douglas 83, since the early hours of the accident. My colleague, member John Hammerschmidt, was on scene in Port Hueneme, California to brief you last week on that investigation.

Some of our investigators are still on-scene in California and will be there for some time to come. I want to, again, thank the United States Navy for their work on the mapping and recovery effort, the United States Coast Guard for their work in the early days of the investigation. I also want to thank the state and local authorities who have provided us with so much help during the investigation. In addition, there a lot of individuals whose contributions are less apparent to the general public. I would like to acknowledge the work of the Alaska Airlines care team, the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, DMORT, of the Department of Health and Human Services, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

Flight 261 was a McDonnell-Douglas aircraft. It's tail number was N as in Nancy, 963, A as in apple, S as in Sierra. It was purchased new by Alaska Airlines in 1992 and the plane had accumulated 26,584 hours of service, and 14,315 flights.

I would like to start off today by giving you the first information, which is preliminary information, from Flight 261's flight data recorder. I will from time to time also reference information off the cockpit voice recorder. To assist you and the general public, my prepared remark will be placed on our Internet site which is immediately following this press conference. There's a lot of technical information in this briefing that the media or the general public may want to refer to, so, again, this statement will be at our Internet site, In addition, the charts that you see that are used for demonstration purposes here will also be posted there.

You see on the table next to me or in front of me the two recorders recovered by the Navy from about 700 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Dr. Bernard Loeb, our director of aviation safety to my left, is situated behind the cockpit voice recorder, and Dr. Vernan Ellingstad, our director of the office of research and engineering, is situated behind the flight data recorder.

The flight data recorder is a Sundstrand UFDR that contains 48 parameters of information, including stabilizer trim position and elevator position. The 25-hour magnetic tape captures the entire two hours and 43 minutes of the accident flight, as well as information from previous flights. After takeoff from Puerto Vallarta, the autopilot was engaged at approximately 7,500 feet. About 13 minutes later, the autopilot was disengaged when the aircraft was at about 29,000 feet. During the following three minutes, the aircraft climbed to 31,000 feet.

You will remember that when we released the cockpit voice recorder information last week, we informed you that when the approximate 31-minute recording began, the pilots were discussing an existing problem with the airplane's stabilizer trim. According to the flight data recorder, the crew had flown for one hour and 53 minutes with the autopilot disengaged. It was at this point that the first event of note occurred.

The chart to my right represents the last 14 minutes of the flight using transponder radar data depicting the aircraft's altitude against a time scale. Approximately 12 minutes before the end of the recording, the data indicated the aircraft was cruising in straight and level flight at an altitude of 31,000 feet and an airspeed of 301 knots, calibrated airspeed, with the autopilot engaged. Simultaneous with autopilot disengagement, the stabilizer trim moved to the apparent full nose-down trim position in about six seconds and remained that way until the final upset.

As recorded on the cockpit voice recorder, the crew commented that they were not able to maintain vertical control and actions to overcome the problem were discussed.

The airplane began then to descend at an average of 7,000 feet per minute, more than three times the typical rate of descent from cruise flight. During this sequence the speed breaks were deployed. After about a minute, the aircraft regained what could be characterized as controlled flight. At this point, Flight 261 was at about 24,300 feet.

For the next nine minutes or so, the aircraft was in control flight, descending from 24,000 to about 18,000 feet. Toward the end of this period, the crew extended the slats and then extended the flaps for a period of little more than 30 seconds, and the cockpit voice recorder reflects comments that the aircraft is controllable in this configuration. The crew then retracted the slats and flaps. Cockpit voice recorder and data -- excuse me, cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder data show that the airplane remained in control at this time.

Things then began to happen very quickly. The aircraft was at about 18,000 feet, air speed 270 knots, pitch attitude 2.7 degrees nose up. The stabilizer was in the full nose-down trim position, and the elevator was more than 12 -- deflected more than 12 degrees in the nose-up position. This elevator deflection was approximately 50 percent of full travel.

At this time, the flaps began to extend to 11 degrees. Approximately three seconds after the start of the flap movement, the slats began to deploy. Beginning at about four seconds after the beginning of the flap-slat deployment, the pitch attitude data shows the airplane pitching nose down at a maximum rate of 26 degrees per second and reaching a nose-down pitch attitude of 59 degrees in approximately three seconds. The nose-down pitch rate decreases over the next 2.5 seconds as the maximum nose-down altitude of 70 degrees was reached. During this rapid nose-down pitching motion, the aircraft experienced a negative-three-G vertical acceleration. Although the pitch attitude began moving rapidly in the nose-up direction at that time, the aircraft did not reach level flight thereafter.

A 60-degree-per-second roll rate to the left began as the pitch altitude approached the maximum nose-down value. The remaining roll values from the recorder are consistent with the airplane rolling into an inverted position. The final descent from 17,900 feet lasted just over one minute.

The aircraft wreckage is located at latitude 34 and 3.5 degrees north, longitude 119, 20.8 degrees west.

That is all we can currently report to you now of the two recorders, the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, which you see in front of me.

Now let me turn to examination of some preliminary radar data.

Dr. Ellingstad is placing before you a chart showing the route of flight 261 over the last 6 1/2 minutes of flight. The route of flight is derived from transponder information and the last transponder beacon recorded in altitude of 1,600 feet. The open circles and open triangles on the chart indicate primary radar hits which are possible reflections of radar signals off some objects. Some of these targets were recorded up to 2 1/2 minutes after the last transponder beacon from Flight 261. You see where we have marked the area of the loud noise we reported to you last week that was heard on the cockpit voice recorder. This basically corresponds to the beginning of the final descent of the aircraft that I just have explained. These primary radar hits might be indicative, and I emphasize might be indicative, of something coming off Flight 261 at this point. I will note that the path of the primary targets is consistent with the direction of the recorded winds at the time of the accident.

Using these radar data, I have instructed assets of the United States Navy to search an area of the ocean where we believe that something -- we believe something that would have departed the aircraft at that point could have landed, which is about four miles from the main wreckage site. This, of course, will be a difficult task for the United States Navy, complicated by the fact that we do not know whether something actually did separate from the aircraft.

As to the other activities in this investigation, the Navy has completed mapping the accident area with underwater side-scanning sonar and video. This information will help guide us in developing a salvage plan. Last night, the Navy found and recovered about an eight-foot section of what we believe to be the left horizontal stabilizer and some portion of the center horizontal stabilizer.

The Ventura County Medical Examiners' office has told us that the remains of three of the 88 souls aboard Flight 261 have been identified and their families notified. Additional identifications and notifications are expected today.

I shared this information with the families on a conference call that I just completed that was conducted in call for one hour prior to this press conference to cover this information for the families first. Our hearts and prayers continue to go out to the loved ones as they conduct the appropriate ceremonies for their loved ones over the next few days.

While I do not wish to go into detail -- excuse me -- our maintenance record group convened in Seattle on February 2nd and has interviewed 15 Alaska Airlines maintenance and dispatch personal in Seattle and Los Angeles. The last heavy maintenance check was a C- check on January 13th, 1999. C-checks are conducted about every 15 months. The aircraft had previous -- had two previous stabilizer trim maintenance writeups, both of them in 1999. In October, the trim system checked out OK and the aircraft was returned to service. In November, the alternate trim switch was replaced.

Now let me turn to two widely-publicized incidents last week involving other aircraft that reported stabilizer problems. Last Friday, we reported our findings on the February 2nd, Americans Airlines incident in Phoenix. On February 4th, Alaska Air Flight 1613 departed Reno, Nevada, for Seattle. Shortly after takeoff, the crew reported primary and alternate trim systems were inoperative. The crew declared an emergency and returned to Reno. A Safety Board investigator traveled to Reno to oversee the board's investigation. In the post-incident examination of the trim systems, the primary trim system operated initially -- initially normally, but the alternate trim function was intermittent. Both the primary and alternate trim motors were replaced and at that time the alternate system operated normally but the primary system was inoperative. Several components associated with the trim system have been removed and are being shipped to our laboratory for analysis. We are also in possession of the flight data recorder, and we are reading it out in our laboratory. The cockpit voice recorder was written over by subsequent events during the flight, so it was not useful for our investigation.

I thank our investigators, many of whom have been working 18-hour days, and I believe that this investigation has gone very well in the weeks since the tragic loss of flight 261. Obviously, there is much left to be done, and we will share further information with the media and the American people as soon as it is appropriate.

We'll be glad at this point to take any questions you might have.

ROCHELLE: Mr. Chairman.

HALL: Carl.

ROCHELLE: A clarification first and then a question: When you said three souls had been identified, are these three additional or beyond the four that we were told had been recovered in the beginning. So do you have a total of three persons?

HALL: There were three individuals in which a positive identification has been made by the medical examiner, and their families have been notified. I've been informed by the medical examiner that they have other identifications that they believe they will be successful in making today, and the families will be notified. They will be notified in person by someone from the medical examiner's office.

ROCHELLE: And the question: Member Hammerschmidt at the last briefing out in California told us that there had been two loud noises recorded -- picked up on the CVR, one identified by the flight attendants and one picked up by the CVR. In your analysis in your labs, do you have any hint or any indication what that sound may have been, what those sounds were?

HALL: A very careful analysis of those sounds is underway. No conclusions have been reached, Carl.

QUESTION: Have you been able to do an inventory of the tail section parts that are on the ocean bottom? Are you unable to find any or -- I'm a little vague on what parts of the stabilizer were found.

HALL: Well, the information -- there was some initial parts of the stabilizer that were collected floating that are there in the hangar at Port Hueneme. In addition, as I just reported, the Navy picked up an approximate 8-foot piece last night. And our structural team is obviously inventorying all of that as soon as it is brought into the hangar.

Yes. QUESTION: At what point did the discussions with the Seattle maintenance base begin in all this sequence?

HALL: Well, early -- very early in the cockpit voice recorder -- and we are still correlating the times, Bob, between the -- all of the recorded events, but it was early in the...

QUESTION: So, at the start of the cockpit voice recorder, the discussions are not underway between the maintenance base and the plane?

HALL: Yes, they are, and Dr. Loeb has listened to the recorder. I have not. I'll let him comment.

DR. BERNARD LOEB, NTSB: We are uncertain when they first contacted the maintenance people relative to the time that the CVR starts, but they were probably at that time had been talking to maintenance -- they had been talking to maintenance, and there are periods when they're not and then there are periods when they are again.

QUESTION: And what kind of a -- this is before that first descent. What kind of a problem are they reporting -- talking to the maintenance people -- are they reporting before that descent?

LOEB: A trim -- a stabilizer trim problem.

QUESTION: Can you confirm that the crew set the...

HALL: Let me get -- Ms. Stark (ph) here had a question before you, sir, and then we'll go to you so we don't get out of order.

QUESTION: A clarification, if I could, and then a question: On the autopilot disengaging, I'm a little confused. You said initially, I believe, that 13 minutes after they engaged it when they were at 29,000 feet, they -- the autopilot disengaged. Is that correct?

HALL: Yes.

QUESTION: Well, do you know from the FDR or the CVR whether it was disengaged by the pilot or whether it was disengaged, kicked off by itself?

HALL: Do you have that information?

DR. VERN ELLINGSTAD, NTSB: When the -- that disengagement of the autopilot is not recorded on the cockpit voice recorder. That happened early in the flight and we only know that the autopilot was disconnected.

QUESTION: OK, but then I'm confused because you say the crew flew for one hour and 53 minutes with the autopilot disengaged.

HALL: Yes, that is correct.

QUESTION: But then later you say, right before it went to the full noise-down position, that was simultaneous with the disengagement. Was it engaged again and then disengaged? Is that what happened?

HALL: Yes, and evidently it was done more than once, and all of that information is having to be evaluated.

QUESTION: The second disengagement, then, right before the first full nose-down position, was that -- can you tell if that's on the CVR and whether that was done by the pilot again or whether it kicked off by itself.

HALL: We do not know that at this time. We're continuing to evaluate, but we cannot answer that question at this time.

QUESTION: One another thing, if I may: You talked about at that time the stabilizer remained -- went into the full nose-down position on that initial descent. Can you tell from the flight data recorder what, if any, stabilizer problems were occurring prior to that point?

HALL: Well, again, I'll let Dr. Ellingstad -- I don't know if the analysis -- no, the answer is no, I'm being informed.

QUESTION: You don't know yet, or there were none occurring, or...?

HALL: There were none occurring.

Clarify this.

LOEB: I thought -- I'm sorry, Lisa (ph), that the question was, did we have any information on the CVR or FDR at that time as to whether there were any stabilizer problems occurring? And the answer is, we don't know that prior to that. I mean, we...

QUESTION: I hate to belabor the point, but that you don't know it because you need to do continued analysis or you don't know it because, from the flight data recorder, you can't see a problem with the stabilizer?

LOEB: We can see stabilizer movement. We cannot necessarily see a stabilizer problem. We can see stabilizer movement. There is no CVR prior to that, so we do not know whether there was a problem per se from that information.

QUESTION: Was the stabilizer in an unusual...

HALL: Let's go to Mr. McKenna (ph) and then Mr. Levin (ph).

QUESTION: Can you confirm that the crew set their transponder code to 7700 to indicate an emergency on board, and can you correlate that with the pickup of the CVR?

HALL: Well, I'm informed that they did, yes, do that.

QUESTION: When did -- was it before the CVR picked up?

HALL: We do not have that information now but we'll get it for you.

I believe Alan (ph) was next, and then Bob.

QUESTION: Just to clarify on the earlier stabilizer problem, is there any evidence on the FDR that the stabilizer went to unusual positions for that altitude and speed?

HALL: When are you refer...

QUESTION: During the earlier period when you were not certain about...

HALL: No, no.

Mr. Orr (ph).

QUESTION: Let me try one more clarification on Lisa's question.


QUESTION: At the point where you see the stabilizer trim moving, is it moving at different times in both nose-up and nose-down directions, or is it only moving in one direction?

HALL: Well, let me let Dr. Loeb so we'll be sure you get the exact information up here.

LOEB: Stabilizer moves only in one direction when we see it, which is nose-down.

HALL: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: There has been some speculation that if the crew was preparing for emergency landing in Los Angeles, it might have done something (UNINTELLIGIBLE) stall over the horizontal stabilizer. Is that at all possible? Is it something you're considering (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

HALL: Well, the crew performance is being evaluated. I don't know that that has been looked at.

Dr. Loeb, do you have anything to add on that?

LOEB: They did extend the slats and flaps, and then retracted them and continued to control the airplane during that period of time.

HALL: OK, we'll go back over here to this side of the room.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: As the agency that regulates these planes, are you concerned that there has now been a fourth incident with an MD-80?

HALL: Well, we are not the agency that regulates these aircraft. That's the Federal Aviation Administration. We do accident investigation for the American people in all modes of transportation, and any accident we investigate is of concern to us. However, we have to let the facts in our investigations lead us to conclusions. And what we are reporting to you today is the factual information that we presently have been able to gather.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: These pieces that the Navy found last night, the left horizontal stabilizer section, and the piece of the center that you reported, is that the site that's about four miles away?

HALL: No, that's the wreckage site itself.

QUESTION: What does it take to be big enough to pick up a radar echo that you might at least speculate for this that...

HALL: Well, I was told by some of our radar experts, and I'm not a radar expert, that something as small as a foot, foot and 1/2 could be picked up.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Was the crew's deployment of the slats and flaps in accordance with checklist?

HALL: That is -- carefully right now, we're going through. The manuals have been requested and are being brought here. All that information will be looked at and reported once our operations team has had a chance to analyze it.

Mr. Wall (ph).

QUESTION: The airplane survives the first upset. They deploy the slats and flaps, retract the slats and flaps, deploy again and then go into their second upset. At the time of their second upset, and final upset, is there any anomaly recorded on the FDR with any other control surfaces, with any circuit breakers being pulled, anything else you can see from either box?

HALL: I would begin deferring to either Dr. Ellingstad or Dr. Loeb on that one -- Dr. Ellingstad.

ELLINGSTAD: During that final upset and decent, there's a variety of indicators that are -- that are going to extreme values on the recorder, and one of the issues is trying to sort all of that out.



HALL: OK, we'll take a couple of more questions -- Mr. Phillips (ph).

QUESTION: The primary hits, there, have you been able to analyze so far how many pieces you're looking at, number one, and number two, is that last primary hit, does that roughly represent a low-level hit about where it went down? HALL: Dr. Ellingstad?

ELLINGSTAD: A couple of things. First of all, we've had, with respect to the primaries, these are reports from about five different radar sites, so that some of the particular targets that we're showing there may be dual reports of the same -- of the same target. We don't have, because these are primaries, we don't have any altitude information, so -- and some of these, as Chairman Hall had indicated before, are being recorded 2 1/2 minutes after the final beacon hit.

QUESTION: Mr. Chairman?

HALL: Yes.

QUESTION: Does the flight data recorder give you any indication as to what point in flight the crew started encountering the stabilizer problem, as to the flight data recorder?

HALL: Well, the entire flight on the CVR. Now, you're talking about the FDR...

QUESTION: Yes, I am. I'm talking about the FDR, the flight data recorder.

HALL: Dr. Loeb.

LOEB: Again, the FDR is not going to give us that information. The FDR indicates the stabilizer movement, it does not tell us whether there was a problem. The CVR does. We're trying to analyze what that means.

QUESTION: But you indicated that the stabilizer was only moving in one direction, and was that during the whole course of the flight?

LOEB: The stabilizer movement that we see is in one direction, but that doesn't necessarily indicate anything early in the flight.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) must be one direction and then back (OFF- MIKE) suddenly moves to the full position when you do the descent.

HALL: Well, there -- obviously, this is a lot of technical information. Let us try to move around so everybody has a chance. Mr. Hager (ph), we'll come back and finish up before you do. I -- we're going to take a little extra time here because there is a lot of technical information. I want to be sure we're giving it to you as correctly as possible.

Mr. Orrin (ph), have you asked a question yet?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) one clarification.

HALL: Well, there's a gentleman right behind you. Let him ask first and then we'll go to you, sir.

QUESTION: Since you have a fairly long history with this model of aircraft, have you had an opportunity to look over the FDRs to determine whether's some sort of pattern with particular problems in the stabilizer sections of MD-80s or 83s with different kinds of parts back there. There have been some reports that there may have been common problems with something called a jackscrew, some different types of bolts have been problematic.

HALL: We're going to be looking very carefully at everything we can look at that's information in regard to the stabilizer and as much history as we had, and that is under way. We don't have anything to report on that at this time -- Mr. Orrin.

QUESTION: This is a timeline question, and maybe you've covered this, but I just want to be clear. Can you tell us where you first see the indication of a primary echo as it related to the final decent? Do you see the primary target before the descent, after it begins or where?

HALL: OK, well, let me have Doctor Loeb come up.

LOEB: It's consistent with. At or about the same -- about the time that the airplane begins its final dive, that's when we -- at that altitude, right at that altitude, about 17 to 18,000 feet is when we see this primary.

QUESTION: Near the onset? Just to be clear, near the onset of that descent.

LOEB: Yes.

HALL: Now, who -- is there anyone here that has not asked a question that wants to ask a question? If not, we'll do this side and then we'll finish up on side. Yes, Rich?

QUESTION: What capabilities do you have from military radar or other radar to get some altitude determination on the primary target?

HALL: Dr. Ellingstad.

ELLINGSTAD: We have -- we have gotten the military rads (ph) data, and that is of use for some of that, but I believe that the data on the primaries that we have here doesn't have -- that we don't have that altitude data, but we have not finished that analysis.


HALL: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Have you all determined the horizontal stabilizer for the MD-83, even if it went and put the aircraft in the pull-down position, would it not have been possible to override that by use of the elevators or would it be impossible? Once it's in that locked position, would the ultimate fate of the aircraft be sealed?

HALL: Doctor Loeb will respond.

LOEB: The horizontal stabilizer is controlled by -- by the stabilizer input, the motors that drive it. The elevator is separate. They were using the elevators to counter the effect of the stabilizer full-nose down situation.

QUESTION: My question is, what (OFF-MIKE) particular aircraft would the elevators be sufficient be sufficient to override the movement of the stabilizers. I understand...

LOEB: Well, as I indicated earlier, they cycled the flaps, the were able to control the airplane in that position with the -- with the stabilizer in the full nose-down position using the elevators.

QUESTION: You don't really know what really caused the final descent?

LOEB: That's correct.


KELLEY: And from the National Transportation Safety Board the latest on the investigation of Alaska Airlines Flight 261. The NTSB chairman, Jim Hall, accompanied by two other experts with him, giving us the latest that they have on the investigation. They have both the recorders recovered, and they talked about with some charts to show what happened when they tried to recover after they dropped a bit, then went steady for a while. But in that last going, in just over a minute in the final descent, they were dropping at three times the typical rate.

Navy has completed mapping the accident area. They have found and recovered an eight-foot section of the left horizontal stabilizer and a piece of the center. They have gone over some of the checks and maintenance records of the plane, and three IDs of some of the folk who were killed on board there have been made, and they are expecting more to come today.


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