A photo caption in yesterday's editions incorrectly identified the federal agency for which Carol Roberts works. She is chief of laboratory services of the National Transportation Safety Board.
A Navy diver recovered two vital flight recorders in "excellent condition" from the wreckage of the Air Florida jetliner at the bottom of the Potomac yesterday, but crash investigators cautioned it will be some time before information from the devices can be fully analyzed for clues to the cause of last week's crash.
Francis H. McAdams, the National Transportation Safety Board member overseeing the investigation of the accident that took 78 lives, and other investigators listened to the cockpit voice recording from the brief flight, but he declined to disclose any of the sounds or conversations.
However, Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.) said McAdams, based on his first hearing of the tape, told him there was "no distress call" to the National Airport control tower or discernible expressions of concern from the flight crew in the moments before the crash, and no comment that "would exclude any cause or fortify" an explanation for the accident.
The congressman, who is chairman of the aviation subcommittee of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, said the "engine noise was significant" on the recording.
He said that according to McAdams, there was no mention on the tape of possible excessive icing on the wings or fuselage of the plane, which has been mentioned by investigators as a potential cause of the crash.
McAdams said the full background noise and the various clicks heard on the tape and some of the conversations of the crew "are not at this time intelligible." But he said that technicians "can enhance that and we can filter out the background noise and we'll get a good reading of what the crew was saying."
McAdams later told a reporter that he had briefed Mineta on some aspects of the investigation but had not given him details from the cockpit voice recording.
The safety board usually does not publicly release transcripts of the cockpit conversations and technical data on air crashes until public hearings are held. Hearings on the Air Florida crash are scheduled next month.
McAdams said, "There would be no value in the release of such data at this time, for the reason that the board does not want to give out misleading information or information that later would turn out to have nothing to do with the cause of the accident." He cautioned that "we know very, very little at this time."
While safety board officials were close-mouthed about the initial information gained from the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, they clearly were elated about finding the instruments -- known as the "black boxes" even though they are orange-colored -- in 30 feet of water. The devices may have dropped out of the Boeing 737's tail section when it was hoisted from the riverbed on Monday.
"Both the magnetic tape from the voice recorder and the . . . foil tape from the flight data recorder appear to be in excellent condition and we are very hopeful that we will get a good rate readout from both," McAdams said.
Air Florida's Flight 90 hit the northbound span of the 14th Street bridge and plummeted into the river in a swirling snowstorm within a minute after liftoff from National Airport a week ago yesterday, killing 74 passengers and crew members and four people in cars on the bridge. Salvage workers recovered 11 more bodies from the river yesterday, all of them males, bringing to 71 the number who have been found.
D.C. homicide Capt. Jimmy Wilson said he believes that when divers resume operations this morning they will find the remaining seven bodies.
With the temperature climbing to 43 yesterday and a bright sun bathing the crash site, divers and salvage workers had their best day yet in searching the river's depths. Visibility, which had been as little as 10 inches earlier in the week, increased to as much as 10 feet with the sharp sunlight, and the Navy diver, Lt. John D. Sechrist, found the key instruments before any boats churned up the water.
By nightfall, when the search was halted for the day, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Delaplane, the head of the diving operation, said "about 60 or 70 percent of the aircraft" had been recovered.
A section of the fuselage, the left-side engine, a portion of the right wing and cockpit instruments were recovered yesterday.
"After today's recoveries," Delaplane said, "we're over the hump."
Investigators have already interviewed 125 witnesses and started to analyze twisted pieces of the wreckage at National Airport's Hangar 12.
In addition, McAdams said that flight data recorders on nine aircraft that took off just before the Air Florida plane and on one plane that landed just after would be examined for clues to flying conditions about the time of the crash.
But the investigators view the recovery of the voice and flight data recorders from the Air Florida plane as "far and away our most valuable investigative tools," in the words of safety board spokesman Brad Dunbar.
While information gained from the two instruments does not always solve the mystery of why a plane crashed, it often provides a key technical link about the operation of the aircraft and sometimes indicates in graphic terms exactly what the flight crew was saying and doing in the moments before impact.
The cockpit voice recorder is fed by a cockpit microphone and records not only the crew's words, but also other sounds in the cockpit, such as controls being activated and the whine of the engines. The other recorder collects flight data--the plane's air speed, bearing, altitude, "vertical g-forces" that bounce a plane up and down, and other information.
As investigators study the voice recording, McAdams said, they will have to determine whose voice they are hearing, as well as who was handling the controls and the communications.
Sechrist was able to recover the two instruments after just 17 minutes of diving yesterday morning, despite the mangled condition of the wreckage still in the water. D.C. police inspector James P. Shugart said sifting through the debris was "like trying to eat spaghetti with a spoon."
"The dive was pretty simple," said Sechrist, who found the boxes in the area from which workers pulled a large chunk of the fuselage to the surface Tuesday, only to see it cut through its sling and plunge back to the bottom.
The Navy diver said his hand-held sonar recorder picked up the water-activated electronic pings emitted by the recorders. "They were relatively free of debris and relatively easy to find," he said.
Sechrist emerged from the water with the first box, the flight data recorder, in his black-rubber-gloved hands and passed it to a crew member standing on a loading platform at the front of a gray Navy diving craft. A few minutes later he resurfaced and held the cockpit voice recorder aloft for reporters and cameramen watching from the closed express lanes of the bridge.
"I was holding it up to show you guys," Sechrist said. Finding the boxes, he said, gave the divers "a shot in the arm" after the agonizingly slow operations of the past few days.
Six of the 11 victims recovered yesterday were identified by the D.C. medical examiner's office. They were: Roger Pettit, 31, of Miami, the plane's copilot; Brian Piontek, 5 months, whose mother and grandmother were also killed in the crash; Michael C. Garland, 45, of Lutz, Fla.; Benson Levinson, 26, of Germantown, a test engineering associate with Fairchild Industries; Sgt. Maj. James Dixon of Tampa, and Maj. Erroll Champagne, 41, of Hillsborough County, Fla.
An autopsy showed Pettit's death was caused by the impact of the crash, according to McAdams.