American Airlines crews began dismantling the broken and charred shell of an airliner today as mourners attended the first of several memorial services for the nine people killed in the crash of Flight 1420.
Federal investigators hope that in moving the wreckage they will learn more about the mechanics of the plane's spoilers -- wing panels used to slow an airplane after landing.
Although the copilot has said he believes the captain set the spoilers, a flight data recorder indicates that they never popped up when the plane landed in a severe thunderstorm Tuesday and skidded off the end of the runway.
The plane struck a steel walkway leading to landing approach lights, split apart and caught fire, killing Capt. Richard Buschmann and eight passengers.
A memorial service was held today in the small town of Royal, near Hot Springs, for James Harrison, 21, a Ouachita Baptist University student who was returning from a choir trip. "It was a service where we healed some of our hurt," said crash survivor and fellow student Misha Perkins, adding that there were both tears and laughter during the private service attended by about 200. Passengers said Harrison stayed in the smoked-filled plane and helped at least two badly injured victims escape.
American Airlines is offering $25,000 checks to the survivors of the deceased, which can be accepted without giving up legal options.
Investigators kept close watch as salvage crews loaded the MD-80's two jet engines onto a flatbed trailer and prepared the plane's wings and fuselage for removal.
"There are parts of the plane . . . covered by wreckage that we'd like to be able to get to when we lift the wreckage -- things we haven't yet seen," said Matthew Furman, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board. "We'll be looking at the cable and wires that are attached to the spoiler," trying to determine their position at the time of impact.
Investigators have said the cockpit lever that sets the spoilers for landing was found in an unusual position. Also, the mechanical checklist operated by first officer Michael Origel displayed data for takeoff instead of landing.
But NTSB lead investigator Greg Feith said both irregularities could have been caused by the crash or by the rescue efforts.
Investigators plan to run the jet engines and then disassemble them. They especially want to test the thrust reversers, engine-mounted devices that help slow the plane. Flight data indicate that the reversers were turned on and off twice after touchdown.
The reversers usually remain engaged until a plane slows to a speed safe for steering on the ground. Origel said he saw the captain activate the reversers, shut them off, then activate them again.
Turning off the thrusters can give the pilot better control. But investigators said intermittent use can affect deceleration.