CHICAGO, AUG. 26 -- When families of the victims of the second worst airline disaster in U.S. history arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport last week, Northwest Airlines took care of their every want and need.

The airline picked up the tab for hotels rooms, food and drink, plane tickets, long-distance telephone calls, shopping trips, flowers and funeral costs. It even assigned each family its own "personal" Northwest representative.

All this provided comfort at a difficult time for the families of the 156 persons killed Aug. 16 in the crash of Northwest Flight 255 shortly after takeoff.

But it also represented the first move in a high-stakes tug-of-war that begins between airlines and victims or their survivors after every major plane crash.

"I'm not willing to say this is totally devious, but we think the company has two motives," said George Milko, an attorney for Halt, a nonprofit legal-reform group. "One is to offer comfort. The second is to collect as much information as they can to be used when it comes to suing. The bottom line is keeping the settlement low."

"The last thing the airline wants reported is that, after 'causing' the injury or death of scores of people, it was callous toward the needs of those who suffered the loss," says a Halt booklet prepared to help disaster victims. "The insurance company also hopes you will become friends with the airline representative and decide that, because you trust your friends, you don't need to hire a lawyer or sue the airline."

But Halt advises survivors to accept help from airlines, and Northwest vehemently denies ulterior motives.

"I'm insulted by that approach. That's nothing but blatant ambulance-chasing," said William Wren, the company's vice president of public relations who spent 10 days at the scene. "None of us wanted this to happen. Our people were there out of a sense of caring and commitment.

"What would they like us to do?" Wren went on. "Sit back and do nothing? These were people clearly in need . . . in some cases they just need someone to talk to. Some of our people became totally involved, almost part of the family."

He said Northwest sent more than 100 account managers and supervisors to Detroit. They gathered medical records, arranged funerals and did "whatever families asked." He said Northwest's insurance company, Associated Aviation Underwriters, has not approached a single family about a damage settlement.

Delta Air Lines pioneered the personal approach after a 1985 crash that killed 137 at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Delta employes attended crash victims' funerals; the company sent flowers and made mortgage payments for victims' families.

Now, many crisis-management experts advise clients to take a similar approach after any such tragedy.

"It's the right thing to do. You want to clearly demonstrate a sincere concern about the victims. Besides, people are less likely to sue you for large claims if they see you as a friend," said Larry Newman, vice president of the New York public relations firm of Manning, Selvage and Lee.

Newman said that everything a company does after an airline tragedy is done with "an eye toward litigation" and a "recovery of business."

"After a crash, you know there will be a trial, possibly many trials. There will be big damage claims," said Newman, who describes himself as a crisis management expert.

"You have to show a sense of responsibility, without admitting guilt," he added. "The Japanese go a step further. When they have a big crash, the president of the company resigns."

There is also a parallel courting process, as lawyers solicit the business of victims or their survivors. Within days of the Northwest crash, lawyers were at work in Detroit and Phoenix, the plane's destination.

Joel Alpert, a Detroit lawyer, placed a classified ad in The Detroit Free Press warning victims about the practices of insurance companies. Eugene Steele, a Miami lawyer, issued a press release saying he had obtained "settlements in excess of recent jury verdicts in the Delta Air Lines crash in Dallas two years ago."

Melvin Belli, a flamboyant San Francisco lawyer, announced that he intended to file several suits in Detroit and Phoenix. "Damages should go from $1 million to $5 million each, depending on the circumstances of the victim," Belli said in an interview.

"Detroit is the biggest judgment center in the world. I can't think of any place I'd rather try a case," he said. "The juries are predominantly black, and blacks historically have been miserably treated by white insurance companies."

Halt, the legal-reform group, is critical of the "contingency fees" charged by disaster lawyers. Under this arrangement, they are paid only if they win an award for a client, often one-third of the award.

"It sounds fair, but in airline disaster cases, it's anything but," Milko said. "The truth is that in air crash cases there is no risk of losing, and therefore no justification for the windfall fees lawyers collect."