Minutes before it crashed here Friday night killing 133, Delta Air Lines Flight 191 had been routinely ordered by air traffic controllers to steadily reduce its speed to avoid overtaking a slower, smaller jet landing ahead of it, federal investigators said tonight.
Then, too late, an air traffic controller at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport watched the wide-bodied Lockheed L1011 emerge from a thunderstorm at too low an altitude -- only about 100 feet -- and frantically ordered the jet to abort its landing.
"Delta, go around," the controller radioed, but within seconds, the jetliner had bounced across a highway and exploded in flames. The crash killed 132 on the plane and one passing motorist. But 31 of those aboard, seated in the smoking section to the rear, survived.
The veteran pilot, Capt. Edward Connors, did not acknowledge the controller's order to abort, according to G.H. Patrick Bursley, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board who is heading the investigation. However, at the moment of impact, the jet had gone to full throttle in a desperate attempt to gain altitude, he said.
It could not be determined immediately whether the controller's warning led the crew to go to full throttle. However, Ira Furman, a spokesman for the safety board, said it is possible that the plane had already bounced once by the time the controller saw it.
Bursley and other investigators repeatedly stressed that the investigation is at a preliminary stage, and no firm conclusions can be drawn.
But the picture emerging from numerous briefings and interviews is of a plane moving at reduced -- but still airworthy -- speed, entering dangerous weather that could produce "wind shear," or treacherous downdrafts.
Bursley had said Saturday that there was no indication that either the pilots or controllers had expressed concerns before the crash. However, he said he had discovered the controller's frantic order to abort today during a review of tapes. He said investigators had also interviewed the unnamed controller.
Bursley also did not say directly that the plane's reduced speed was a factor in the crash, but he intimated that it could have been.
"Power is an answer to overcoming problems in flight control," he said.
There also is a growing body of evidence that wind shear could have been a factor in the crash. Although the airport's detectors did not note wind shear before the crash, the alarm system went off about 14 minutes later.
The weather cell was so intense that "everything [at the tower] lit up," he said.
Bursley said this wind shear cell was extraordinarily intense, built up rapidly, caused violent winds and rain, and then dissipated with unusual speed.
Flight 191 was moving at a reduced speed because controllers saw that they needed to maintain a safe distance between the larger, faster L1011 and a Lear Jet landing ahead of it, Bursley said.
The pilot of Flight 191 complied with the orders, cutting about 75 mph from his airspeed during several minutes before he headed into a violent rainstorm that had appeared without warning near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, the evidence collected by the safety board now indicates.
The plane gradually cut its speed from 210 knots down to 150 knots, a safe flying speed under normal conditions.
But when the L1011 emerged from the turbulent airmass, the tower controller was alarmed to see Flight 191 not more than 100 feet above the ground, well below the safe final glide path to the runway.
"Delta, go around!" the controller ordered. But as he watched, he has told NTSB investigators, he saw the plane's nose and left wing drop, and saw fire along the left wing. The jumbo jet bounced and crashed short of the runway.
It is the first time that questions have been raised about the role of the ground controllers in the events leading up to the crash. Bursley had no information about the controller, but said that would be forthcoming Monday.
The investigators said they found no malfinctions of any major control or power system aboard, Bursley said. The probers have had a preliminary review of the inflight recorder, and looked at the engines and other wreckage.
Bursley said investigators have determined the plane first touched the ground 1,700 feet north of a busy peripheral highway located beyond the northern end of the runway. The plane then bounced and was airborne until its landing gear crushed a passing car on the peripheral road.
The plane then clipped a huge water tank, sheared off some landing light towers, and slammed to earth, breaking in two.
Bursley said that while the possibility of a lightning bolt has not been ruled out as factor in the crash, a surviving stewardess has told probers she saw no evidence of lightning hitting the plane. A Delta spokesman, Matt Guilfoyle, today blamed weather for the sudden plunge of Flight 191 as it approached the airport.
"It appears as if weather was the primary factor," Guilfoyle said. "Hopefully, it will be viewed by the traveling public as what it was -- an act of God."
The death toll, previously reported to be 131 on board, was raised to 132 today when medical examiners identified the body of an infant who had been an unticketed passenger.
Investigators Saturday issued preliminary findings showing that neither Flight 191 nor other flights approaching Dallas just before the crash received weather warnings. But Furman said yesterday that team members "have heard and are pursuing reports that other pilots chose not to land" and diverted to other airports.
Delta officials said their Flight 233, coming to Dallas from Tampa within half an hour after Flight 191, circled the airport here and then diverted to Oklahoma City.
Search workers recovered dozens of pieces of luggage from the tail section and an airport spokesman said a "carload" of personal effects, such as wallets and handbags, had been collected from the wreckage. These items are important in helping identify the bodies. By this afternoon, 32 of the 121 bodies recovered from the wreckage had been identified.