NEW YORK -- Less than 10 minutes before Avianca Flight 052 crashed onto a Long Island hillside on Jan. 25, Capt. Laureano Caviedes told Copilot Mauricio Klotz in Spanish, "Advise him we are emergency." A few seconds later, he asked, "Did you tell him?"

Klotz, in the same calm, almost nonchalant voice he used throughout a night of deepening peril, replied, "Yes sir, I already advise him," according to the official transcript of the National Transportation Safety Board.

At that point, 73 people lost what might have been their last chance to survive.

Whatever Klotz thought he had told air traffic controllers, no one

on the ground was aware that

the Avianca plane's four jet en- gines were sucking the last few minutes of fuel from almost-empty wing tanks. By the time controllers began to get the idea, it was too late.

For 50 minutes, although neither pilots nor controllers knew it, they were playing a deadly word game. The copilot, whose English was quite good although his syntax occasionally lapsed, apparently thought he had told controllers of his emergency when he said several times, "I think we need priority," or "We're running out of fuel."

But controllers, perhaps lulled by Klotz's outward calm, never heard the key words prescribed in the air traffic control manual -- "minimum fuel" or "emergency."

It may already have been too late for the Boeing 707 to return to John F. Kennedy International Airport after missing an approach in low visibility and buffeting winds. But without the benefit of emergency procedures, which were not invoked, the Colombian airliner had no hope.

Three days of NTSB hearings last week shed little light on why three experienced crew members broke many FAA rules and violated nearly every rule of common sense in allowing their plane to run out of fuel. During the several times they were in air traffic holds along the East Coast, the crew could have put down easily at several airports relatively clear of the winds and low clouds that plagued Kennedy. In their final hold, 40 miles southeast of Kennedy -- when they clearly knew they were in trouble -- the plane was only 65 miles from Philadelphia.

But the hearings did dramatize an astounding failure to communicate -- in the cockpit, between the cockpit and the ground, and to a lesser extent, between different air traffic controllers.

"I just took it as a passing

comment," said James Lowery, the Kennedy tower controller who heard Klotz say after the missed approach: "Ah, we'll try once again; we're running out of fuel." Lowery said many planes make references to their fuel on stormy nights.

Michael Sammartino of the New York terminal radar approach control facility (Tracon), the last controller to talk to Avianca 052, said Klotz spoke in "a very nonchalant manner . . . . There was no urgency in the voice."

Sammartino heard Klotz say, "Uh, we're running out of fuel, sir," but "it didn't trigger anything in me," Sammartino said.

Steven R. Kelley, a supervisor at the Tracon, said such words and phrases as "priority" and "running out of fuel" have no meaning in air traffic terminology. "It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people," he said.

Several controllers and Federal Aviation Administration officials suggested that "running out of fuel" could mean that a plane is reaching its minimum reserve and would have to divert to an alternate airport, not that its tanks are almost dry.

A manual taken from the body of the copilot seems to support their position. One paragraph reads: "If the remaining usable fuel supply suggests the need for a traffic priority to ensure a safer landing, you should declare an emergency, account low fuel, and report fuel remaining in minutes."

But foreign pilots shot back that it is rare for any pilot to use the word "emergency," and that such terminology is not required by the rules of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

"I've never used it {"emergency"} and I've never heard it used in commercial aviation," said Danilo DeJudicibus, a spokesman for the International Federation of Airline Pilots and a retired captain with the Italian airline Alitalia.

The pilots asked a question that is also likely to be asked in the final safety board report: Why didn't the controllers simply ask the crew how many minutes of fuel they had remaining?

"If you get a message from

an airplane that it could be in

trouble, make sure you know what is going on, even if they do not go by the book," said Jose Mosqueira, a captain with the Spanish airline, Iberia.

"I'm very surprised that 'running out of fuel' means nothing to them," said Saul Pertuz, an Avianca captain who was spokesman for the airline at the hearing. "I'm terrified."

Pertuz told safety board member John Lauber, "I have the understanding this is becoming sort of a word game."

Lauber replied, "I agree with you this has become a word game, and this is one of the fundamental questions we're facing here."