CHARLOTTE, N.C., JULY 3 -- Robert Thomas of Phoenix was dozing as USAir Flight 1016 descended through a bumpy sky when he felt the DC-9's jet engines roar to life. Within what seemed an instant, he was skidding through the Carolina woods and stumbling through burning wreckage.
"When we approached, I felt the engines kick on," Thomas, 33, said from a wheelchair at Carolinas Medical Center. "I kind of felt he was taking the plane back up. Then the next thing I know we was on the ground sliding, and everything was flying right by me. I had a close friend that was two seats over, and seats were on top of him and everything. You couldn't even see him." He said he thinks his friend, Steven Roy of Phoenix, is dead.
"I don't know why I'm here," Thomas said in a slow, measured voice. "When I got up, everything around me was -- there was nobody. Everybody was either buried or not there."
Flight 1016 Saturday night became the first major airline crash in 27 months when its crew attempted to abort its landing during a thunderstorm, apparently because of heavy rain and warnings of moderate wind shear, but veered off into woods west of Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.
The crash of Flight 1016 at the end of a short hop from Columbia, S.C., was a fickle disaster. According to trauma surgeon Mike Thomason, most of the 20 survivors among the 57 passengers and crew had relatively minor injuries. But rescuers said many of the dead were torn and burned beyond recognition.
The death toll was raised to 37 today when investigators discovered that some of the people first thought to be in hospitals were still entombed in the wreckage or lying in pieces throughout the woods west of the airport.
One by one during the day, refrigerated trucks backed slowly toward the wreck scene, then left with four bodies each for morgues in a sort of funeral procession, flanked by police cars with lights flashing.
Thomas said he remembered little of the moments after the plane touched down, although his description confirmed that the plane was attempting to abort its landing and was still flying relatively wings-level when it crashed.
"When it first hit, I thought he was on the runway," Thomas said. "But when I saw the debris flying, I knew we were in trouble."
USAir Chairman Seth Schofield told reporters that the plane "was very close to the runway at a very low altitude" when the crew decided to abort and try another landing. Investigators said, however, the plane veered to the right and crashed into woods just west of the airport.
John A. Hammerschmidt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board who is heading the investigation, said the plane hit the ground with its right landing gear first followed by the left gear 18 feet later. He said it began breaking up about 30 feet from impact. It slashed through a wooded area, struck a small, block structure, then broke into pieces when it hit two large oak trees.
The front of the plane came to rest relatively intact on a road, the center section was badly crushed, and the tail section rammed into the kitchen of an empty house. Rescuers at first thought the house was occupied because plane survivors walked through the house to escape.
Thomas said he was sitting in seat 11A, and when he turned around, the seats behind him were gone.
Investigators today found the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder -- often called "black boxes" even though they are orange -- which may shed some light on the cause. Investigators, as usual, are checking every aspect of the crash, including weather.
Hammerschmidt said a thunderstorm was moving through the area that left a third of an inch of rain in only 15 minutes immediately after the crash. Airport sensors indicated it hit the south end of the runway about the same time Flight 1016 was breaking off its approach at the north end.
A preliminary reading of the cockpit voice recorder and control tower tapes showed that Flight 1016 hit heavy rain on its descent and eight seconds later told the tower it was "on the go," or aborting. The crash took place 20 seconds later.
The tower issued a wind shear alert about a minute before the crew made the decision to abort, but the report was relatively mild, amounting to a 90-degree shift in winds that never reached more than 21 knots -- about 24 mph. The pilots of two aircraft decided to delay takeoff because of the alert, although one said, "It doesn't look too bad on radar."
The Charlotte airport does not have a newly developed wind shear-detecting Doppler radar, but has an older low-level wind shear alert system (LLWAS) that uses sensors placed around the airport grounds. Hammerschmidt said investigators will read stored records from this system on Monday seeking possible evidence of a potentially deadly microburst -- a cold column of falling air that fans out as it hits the ground. Such events can be highly local and hard to detect.
Thomas said that during the flight, "the plane was jumping up and down" but became more stable as it approached the runway. A plane landing ahead of Flight 1016 reported smooth air.
Schofield said the crew was experienced -- the captain had 8,065 hours of flying time and the first officer a relatively high 12,984 hours -- and both were fully trained to detect and avoid wind shear. He said the plane also had a wind shear-detecting device.
The cockpit crew, identified as Capt. Michael Greenlee, 38, of St. Paris, Ohio, and First Officer James Hayes, 41, of Woodstock, Ga., survived in good condition, as did all three flight attendants, Richard Demary, 28, of Coraopolis, Pa.; Shelly Markwith, 28, of Annapolis; and Karen Forcht, 27, of New Brighton, Pa. All were based in Pittsburgh.
Hammerschmidt said investigators have an appointment to interview the crew on Tuesday. He said their union, the Air Line Pilots Association, insisted on extra time to interview the pilots in preparation to represent them.
Investigators also will look into the history of the plane, a 21-year-old twin-jet workhorse that could seat 103 passengers. The crashed plane was built in 1973 and had 54,000 hours of flying time.
Schofield said it had just undergone a "D" check in June, the most thorough maintenance an airplane can receive, in which it is almost stripped to the frame and rebuilt. He said it had no pending mechanical problems.
Other investigators will examine the plane's engines, USAir's operations, air traffic control, cabin survival factors and human performance.
For the survivors and the families of the dead, however, the ordeal is less formal and mechanical.
At Presbyterian Hospital, which treated seven of the crash victims, one of the plane's younger passengers, 13-year-old Adisa Young of Port St. Lucie, Fla., is listed in stable condition with burns. He was traveling alone, but relatives have now joined him at the hospital, officials said.
Transportation Secretary Federico Pena said he visited survivors and families awaiting word of missing loved ones. The survivors were "in good spirits, obviously happy to be alive," but he said talking to those still waiting was agonizing.
Pena said his main purpose in flying to Charlotte was to be certain that officials, medical examiners in particular, have all the resources they need. He said no resources should be spared in identifying bodies.
Thomas said he and his friend Roy were headed for Philadelphia for a fun weekend break from his job at Control Logic assembling computers.
"He's helped me out of a lot of binds," Thomas said of Roy, whose name does not appear on USAir's list of survivors. "He's the one that got me this job. We've been very close together for a long time."
Staff researcher Barbara J. Saffir contributed to this report.
* 6:10 p.m.
USAir Flight 1016 takes off from Columbia, S.C., scheduled to arrive in Charlotte, N.C., at 6:52 p.m. The DC-9 was carrying five crew members and 52 passengers.
* 6:40 p.m. After aborting an attempted landing on Runway 18R at the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport during thunderstorms, the jet crashes into a field just west of the runway. The plane bounces, skidding into some trees and breaking into three parts. The main part of the fuselage, including the tail section, lands on an empty house on Wallace Neal Road, with the nose of the aircraft coming to rest in the roadway.
-- Compiled by Barbara J. Saffir
SOURCES: USAir, Reuter, Associated Press and staff reports