ROMULUS, MICH., AUG. 18 -- The death toll from Northwest Airlines Flight 255 rose to at least 156 today as airline officials reported that only a 4-year-old girl survived when the McDonnell Douglas MD80 slammed to earth moments after takeoff Sunday.

Northwest officials said that, of 155 persons on the plane, only Cecilia Cichan of Tempe, Ariz., survived the nation's second-worst air disaster. Her condition was upgraded to serious today at a children's hospital in Ann Arbor.

At least two persons were reported killed in vehicles when the plane plunged onto Interstate 94 at the edge of Detroit's Metropolitan Airport. Local officials said that number will probably increase as bodies are identified.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials said tonight that the cockpit crew of the jet in the takeoff line behind Flight 255 reported that the Northwest plane lifted off at a "notably steep angle" and reached an altitude of only 150 feet before plummeting.

NTSB member John K. Lauber, heading the investigation, said other factors involved in the takeoff, such as airspeed at liftoff, appeared to have been normal.

He also noted that, 30 minutes before the 8:45 p.m. EDT departure, airport authorities issued low-level wind-shear alerts. He added that, by the time the jetliner departed, the alerts had been lifted.

Wind shears are sharp, dangerous bursts of wind that usually are found only with thunderstorms or other severe weather.

As has been the case since the probe began, the NTSB tonight gave a different death toll than did Northwest. Lauber said that he was told that 153 passengers and crew members died in the crash and that confusion apparently resulted because some passengers had used frequent-flier coupons not in their names.

"I know this is difficult, but I hope the conflicts will be resolved soon," he said.

Earlier today, investigators seeking the cause of the accident encountered problems as federal officials cast doubt on reports that fire in the left engine of the two-engine plane may have contributed to the crash.

Lauber characterized the McDonnell Douglas MD80 as "a pretty healthy airplane." He said there was nothing remarkable about the condition of the engines before the crash.

Federal officials today cited a cockpit recording suggesting that the captain and first officer were unaware of danger until the plane began to fall. A preliminary transcript of the recording indicates that a computer warned them several times of an aerodynamic stall just after takeoff.

Analysis of flight-data tapes, considered essential evidence, has been delayed by a faulty decoding machine in Washington.

"We were hoping to have that tape today," said one senior safety official involved in the investigation. "This puts us back. It's discouraging."

The officials said the tape appears to be in good shape. NTSB representatives flew to the manufacturer's Florida headquarters to attempt to repair the decoder.

With no conclusive data on the cause of the crash, investigators are working on several theories. Because the plane stalled, losing altitude, several experts cited possible wind-shear or weight problems.

The National Weather Service said that, as the plane took off to the northeast, a 14 mph westerly wind was blowing and added that showers had moved across the area between 8:35 and 8:45 p.m.

Aviation officials said the jetliner was very heavy on takeoff, but NTSB officials said its weight apparently was within regulations. An NTSB spokesman said the plane weighed 143,700 pounds on departure, under the 149,500 allowable.

"That plane was as full as you can possibly make it," said one official. "We have to look at those calculations very carefully to see if it wasn't too heavy."

Northwest spokesman Bob Gibbons said the plane was crowded but not dangerously so. "There wasn't room for another adult on that aircraft," he said. "But that's how many planes fly."

Of the 155 people on board, he said, six were crew members, five were infants riding on parents' laps, three were off-duty Northwest employes and the other 141 included children and adults. He declined to release a complete passenger list. {Details, Page A10}.

Gibbons said the plane was configured to seat 143 passengers although he did not know how many seats it had for flight attendants.

NTSB officials also were investigating why a relatively short 8,500-foot runway was used for takeoff when two considerably longer ones were available.

"There is nothing that draws our attention in one particular direction," Lauber said tonight. "There are so many unknowns yet that we cannot afford at this stage of the investigation to narrow our focus at all."

Reporters were allowed their closest look at the crash sight this morning, from an overpass on Middlebelt Road east of the airport.

Wreckage was strewn for hundreds of grisly yards. Charred clothing, shards of metal and other debris littered the road. A wheel casing stood upside down, and one engine sat in the highway median.

Many pieces of luggage were also visible and, while most were mangled, a few were in such good condition that their brightly colored tags flapped in the breeze.

Wayne County sheriff's officials struggled to identify the bodies. County Medical Examiner Werner Spitz said some remains may never be identified.

County officials also worked with automobile experts to identify vehicles crushed by the plane. Sheriff's department aide Nancy Mouradian said at least three vehicles were crushed or burned.

"You see it in the movies, but you can't imagine actually standing there with all the carnage and twisted wreckage. It's a very unreal feeling," she said.

Authorities said the interstate, a major Detroit artery, was reopened this afternoon after wreckage was checked and debris removed. Among items found there was rifle, NTSB officials said, emphasizing that it could have been checked on the plane or been in a vehicle struck by the jet.

Relatives of victims were brought to a temporary morgue in an airport hangar, where they were asked to help identify the dead by viewing videotapes of their faces.

Officials investigating the airliner's Pratt & Whitney JT8D-217 engines discounted reports of engine problems because airlines regularly rotate and replace them.

Witnesses continued to offer differing versions of the crash, some citing a fire near the left engine and others saying they did not see one.

Although Lauber said he does not believe that fire was evident in the left engine, another official said the engine was not rotating as fast as it might have on impact, suggesting a failure of some kind.

An NTSB official said the investigation does not appear to be focusing on the engines.

"Those engines were running. Both of them," said an official of United Technologies, of which Pratt & Whitney is a subsidiary. The official said marks at the crash site indicate that blades in both engines were spinning at impact.

Federal Aviation Administration records show that no serious service problems were reported on either engine of the plane in the last five years. An FAA spokesman said any incidents involving the engines this month would not appear in the record-keeping system yet.

The death toll is the worst since an American Airlines DC10 crashed May 25, 1979, at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, killing 273 persons aboard the plane and two on the ground.Staff writers David S. Hilzenrath and Cindy Skrzycki contributed to this report.