LOS ANGELES, FEB. 6 -- A scuffle between two passengers over their places in line could have delayed the escape of other passengers, some of whom died as they struggled to reach the exit of a USAir jetliner as it burned here Friday after colliding with a SkyWest commuter plane, a federal investigator said today.
Eighteen people who survived the collision died before escaping the burning aircraft. If the plane had been equipped with fire-retardant panels, passengers would have had one minute longer to escape, according to authorities.
National Transportation Safety Board member Jim Burnett said interviews with 41 of the 67 survivors on USAir Flight 1493 indicated that two men fought over which would go first out the overwing exit at Row 10. He also said the woman seated next to the exit failed to open it immediately and that the man a row behind her opened it, helped her out and then followed.
One passenger had previously reported that the woman next to the exit had panicked.
"At some point in the evacuation sequence, two men ran over a woman trying to reach the exit and then scuffled among themselves as to priority," said Burnett. "Another male passenger stepped forward, stuffed one of them through the exit, pushed the other through the exit and helped the woman out.
"We do not know what kind of delay . . . happened at this point. We do know that there were people who did not survive who were headed for the overwing exit in Row 10," he said.
Burnett also reported on the flight's final moments as seen by the USAir copilot, David Kelly, 32, of Washington, D.C., who was landing the plane at Los Angeles International Airport. Kelly said his jet's main landing gear was on the runway and the nose gear was about to touch down when he saw a red light, the tail of another airplane and a flash.
"Everything went dark" as the nose of the USAir jet descended further, Burnett said Kelly told federal investigators.
As the USAir jet approached Runway 24L, Kelly said he saw planes taxiing toward it on a parallel runway but saw no aircraft on 24L, Burnett said. SkyWest Flight 5569 had been directed onto that runway and told to hold to await takeoff by the same air traffic controller who cleared the USAir jetliner to land there.
Factors contributing to the accident and death toll continue to accumulate. They include antiquated radar equipment, a chronic shortage of air traffic controllers, a third aircraft that broke radio contact with the control tower minutes before the crash and a misplaced clearance order for a fourth flight that was seeking clearance to take off from the same air traffic controller who was directing both the USAir and SkyWest flights. The controller has yet to be interviewed.
The captain of another USAir flight approaching the airport at the time of the crash may be responsible for the exclamation, "What the hell!" heard on air traffic control tapes. He was on the same radio frequency when he saw a fireball, investigators said.
When asked to characterize the air traffic at the Los Angeles airport, Burnett said Kelly replied, "You learn to expect the unexpected."
All 10 passengers and two cockpit crew members on the SkyWest flight died when their plane was dragged hundreds of yards under the belly of the USAir plane. Of the 83 passengers -- 33 of whom boarded the USAir flight in Washington -- and the six crew members, 22 died. The dead included Capt. Colin Shaw, 48, of Huntingtown, Md., and the following identified today by the Los Angeles County coroner's office:
George Weth, 55, McLean, Va.; Robert Cole, 27, Washington; Richard Ronk, 33, Mansfield, Ohio; Jennifer Dow, 18, Millbury, Mass.; Robert Dow, 46, Millbury; Phillip Fleming, 42, Los Angeles; Martha O'Neill, 46, Sutton, Mass.; Richard Withers, 24, Gahanna, Ohio.