Salvage efforts on the Air Florida jetliner lying in the Potomac were brought to a virtual standstill yesterday by near zero temperatures and high winds.
"We accomplished little if anything today," D.C. Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. told a late afternoon press conference.
The federal task force investigating the crash also was frustrated by the inability of the salvage workers to recover the all-important flight data and cockpit voice recorders that are believed to be in the tail section of the Boeing 737.
Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Delaplane, the naval officer directing the technical part of the salvage operation, said activities were suspended for the day after a valve malfunctioned on the heated diving suits being used by the divers. Delaplane said that a barge-floated crane had been requested and is on its way to supplement one on the 14th Street Bridge to aid in raising the tail section.
Divers were having some difficulty in securing cables to the section and there was also some concern that if the section were raised with the 25 mph hour winds that were blowing yesterday, the section would have been raised only to be blown away, Delaplane said.
Chief Medical Examiner James L. Luke said that of the 50 bodies recovered--46 from the aircraft and four from automobiles struck on the bridge by the plane before it went into the river--all but one have been positively identified. All but one of the 50 victims recovered so far appear to have died from the impact of the crash, Luke said. The one exception, identified as Arland Williams, 46, died of exposure and drowning, according to Brian D. Blackbourne, chief deputy D.C. medical examiner.
Another two bodies have been located, but they are trapped beneath the tail section, according to Delaplane. He said every effort would be made to recover all 78 bodies, but because of the difficulty in locating all of them, it was possible that some would not be found.
Delaplane said the salvage operation has more than adequate personnel and resources at its disposal, but is being hampered by the weather. Six or seven large pieces of the plane, including the tail attached to a 45-foot section of the fuselage, the left wing, cockpit,and a center section of the fuselage with a portion of the right wing attached to it have been located underwater, Delaplane said. The right wing was located with the aid of experimental radar equipment suspended from a helicopter. The left wing was removed from the water Friday evening.
Delaplane estimated that it would take another 10 days to complete the salvage operation, and even longer if the weather continues to interfere with the work.
With the diving stopped, the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into the cause of the accident made little progress.
The two "black box" recorders, which investigators believe hold important clues, still are in the tail section of the plane and the tail section still is submerged in the Potomac River. Investigators also are anxious to study control panels on the wings and tail, the engines, the cockpit and other major structural components to give them a good picture of the plane's condition.
So far, however, the left wing is the only major structure that has been salvaged. It was trucked yesterday from the center span of the 14th Street bridge to a hangar at National Airport where experts will begin going over metal fragments one piece at a time to see what they can learn.
There is another big gap in knowledge about the accident, and Francis H. McAdams, safety board member heading the investigation, sought help yesterday in closing it. He said the board wants to talk to a Diamond cab driver who was parked either at the north end of the airport or in the Gravelly Point parking lot just north of the end of the runway.
That driver called the board's command post the day of the accident and described the plane as taking off, with its landing gear extended. For some reason a record of that call was lost and interviewers want to ask the cabbie where the plane was on the runway when it left the ground. They have many witnesses who saw the plane start to takeoff and several who saw it crash into the bridge, but none who actually saw it leave the ground.
McAdams said last night that the safety board will hold public hearings on the crash sometime before the end of February. At the hearings evidence will be presented from air traffic controllers, de-icing crews, airport and airline officials, among others.
Board officials also reported yesterday that the plane electronically reported a maximum altitude of 450 feet to the National Airport radar before dropping off the screen. The radar captured the plane only twice in an eight-second period, once at 350 feet, once at 450. The airport itself is at 15 feet elevation; the highest altitude the plane reported was 435 feet above ground.