Murky, near-freezing water and shifting currents hampered the efforts yesterday of salvage crews to recover important electronic equipment and the victims of the Air Florida jetliner from the Potomac.
Eight bodies from the fuselage as well as part of the wing were recovered before operations were suspended for the night at 6 p.m., but officials at the scene stressed that the process was going to be a slow, long one. Not the least of the salvage workers' problems is that they still do not have a precise idea of how the parts of the plane are situated in the water.
Francis B. McAdams, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board and of the official investigating committee for the accident, said that the operation "looks like a rather complicated procedure and may take some time." McAdams said salvage personnel were considering the possibility of slipping cables or netting under the aircraft to lift it.
The difficulty, according to board spokesman Ira Furman, is in locating the pieces of the wreckage. Visibility in the 20- to 27-foot water is 12 to 18 inches. The board, which is charged by law with investigating the causes of airline crashes, is concerned that if the plane is lifted too quickly, it will break up, pieces will drift off and evidence needed to determine the cause of the crash will be destroyed. Furman characterized the effort as a "more planned approach."
D.C. Police Chief Maurice Turner, who is in overall command of the salvage operation under an agreement worked out after the crash, said the plane had broken into many pieces. According to McAdams, one section of the aircraft was moving in the water.
Turner said that the hole in the fuselage of the aircraft is too small for divers to enter. McAdams said the divers may have to cut into the fuselage and that they had not yet located the flight data and cockpit voice recorders from the tail. These two pieces of equipment may provide essential information to the investigators in their effort to determine what caused Air Florida's Boeing 737 to crash Wednesday afternoon while taking off from Washington National Airport.
All eight bodies recovered yesterday had been strapped into their seats with safety belts, according to Turner.
The bodies--seven male and one female--were first taken to a temporary morgue set up on the river bank and then to the D.C. medical examiner's office, where autopsies will be performed.
Seven of the eight were identified last night as Walter Sutton II, 31, of Rockville; Edward James Horton Jr., 50, of St. Petersburg, Fla.; Dr. William Liddle, 54; Rex Ellis; A. Williams; J. Hobbs, and a man identified only as Herman, his last name. The eighth body, that of a female, was not yet identified.
The bodies of 17 passengers on the plane have now been recovered. The bodies of another two persons, who were swept from their cars on the northbound span of the 14th Street bridge into the Potomac, have also been recovered. In addition, two other persons struck by the plane on the bridge died Thursday of their injuries. A total of 78 persons--74 from the plane and four in cars--are believed to have been killed in the accident.
Preliminary autopsies of the first nine bodies recovered established the cause of death as "blunt force trauma"-- the impact of the crash-- according to a D.C. police spokesman working with the city's chief medical examiner, Dr. James L. Luke. According to Turner, the bodies recovered yesterday also showed signs of massive trauma on their upper half.
The Army Corps of Engineers said that experimental radar equipment would be suspended over the water from a helicopter after operations were called off for the night in an effort to produce an electronic image of the plane on the river bottom. In this way, a corps spokesman said, the precise location of the plane's pieces might be determined.
The salvage operation is a joint effort of the D.C. police, federal agencies, the Army, Navy and Coast Guard.
The entire operation involves about 200 workers at the site. A quonset hut and three heated green canvas tents used as temporary morgues have been set up and U.S. Park Service bulldozers have laid down a gravel road from the George Washington Parkway to the river's edge.
More than eight boats are in the water helping in the operation, including three large gray landing barges that have helped clear ice from the area. Army workers working from those barges also picked up debris from the area and then transferred pieces of the wreckage, luggage, women's dresses, suit bags, suitcases, a tie and an attache case into plastic bags that were kept in a special area under one of the spans of the 14th Street bridge.
At a press conference held at the Virginia end of the bridge yesterday afternoon, Turner said that Washington had been stricken on Wednesday by "three disasters": the air crash, the Metro accident and the severe snowstorm. As a result of this freak coincidence and the combined reactions to them, Turner said he was ordering a thorough investigation into the city's response.
Assistant Police Chief Marty M. Tapscott has been appointed to head the task force, which will also includes representatives from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, Turner said.