LOS ANGELES, FEB. 3 -- Federal investigators said today that an airport radar used to track planes on the ground was not in operation Friday night at the Los Angeles International Airport when two airplanes collided on a runway, killing 33 people.
Sixty-eight people survived the crash that occurred when an air traffic controller directed an arriving USAir Boeing 737 onto the same runway where a small SkyWest commuter plane was waiting to take off, officials said. There were no survivors from the smaller aircraft, which carried two crew members and 10 passengers -- nine from California and one from Portugal.
The ground radar, intended to aid controllers in tracking planes on runways and taxiways, is in use in only 12 major U.S. airports. Los Angeles airport rules require it to be operating at night or when a controller cannot determine the location of a plane. Officials of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have not yet determined whether the lack of the radar played a role in the accident.
NTSB member Jim Burnett said a notation in the control tower's log indicated that one of the two radar displays was not working, and when an investigator asked today that it be turned on, he said, "it made the kind of noise that is made when his wife drives a stick shift."
Burnett said other tower equipment also appeared to be in poor condition. He added that investigators had managed to enter the burned-out fuselage of the 737 and determined that all but one of the passengers -- who was seated in First Class -- had managed to unbuckle their seat belts after the collision. He said all emergency exits not damaged in the wreck were open and that a large number of people left through the rear doors. However, he said, several bodies, including that of one flight attendant, were found near one of the open exits over the wing. He offered no explanation of why they did not get out of the plane but indicated this would be a major part of the investigation.
All the bodies have now been recovered from the two aircraft, officials said today. Identifying the dead will take several days, according to Bob Dambacher, spokesman for the county coroner's office.
The search was hampered the first night because of fuel leakage, and the site was closed off. "Then the tail end of the 737 had to be removed to stabilize the rest of the aircraft," said NTSB spokesman Brent Bahler. That again limited the time available to recover bodies.
The Boeing 737 snapped partially in two after striking the SkyWest Fairchild Metroliner, dragging it down the runway and crashing with it into an abandoned airport fire station. The twin-engine plane, SkyWest Flight 5569, remained under the belly of the larger aircraft.
An NTSB review of the airport control tower tapes revealed that the air controller, whose name has not been released, cleared both planes for the same runway. The USAir flight was arriving and the SkyWest flight was ready for departure.
USAir Flight 1493 from Syracuse, N.Y., Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio, carried 83 passengers -- 33 who boarded in Washington -- and six crew members. "We're waiting for the coroner's office to get positive identification" on the bodies, said USAir spokeswoman Agnes Huff.