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Swissair Tragedy


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Swissair tragedy may be linked to electrical failure



Lisa Brown
Lighthouse staff

 PEGGY'S COVE - The crash of Swissair Flight 111 off the coast of Peggy's Cove September 2 may have been caused by a massive electrical problem.

 Officials from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada announced last week that the cockpit voice recorder, like the flight data recorder, stopped working at 10:25 p.m. about six minutes before the passenger jet plunged into the Atlantic. Hopes had been high that the 30-minute recording of everything going on in the cockpit would reveal what led to the disaster which claimed the lives of all 215 passengers and 14 crew members on board the aircraft.

 But investigators said the fact that both recorders cut out at about the same time could indicate a major power failure since they were operating on different electrical circuits. The flight crew indicated there was smoke in the cockpit at 10:14 p.m. and some material from a cockpit seat cover which has been recovered shows signs of heat damage. Officials still say they aren't certain if any part of the jet caught fire in the final minutes before the crash.

 In another announcement last week, the Transportation Safety Board said the cockpit voice recorder reveals that Pilot Urs Zimmermann and his crew reported smelling something unusual in the cockpit about three minutes before the initial distress call. Lead investigator Vic Gerden said the crew "began to troubleshoot" and eventually donned oxygen masks. At the point that the smell was discovered, Mr. Gerden said the flight data recorder, which tracks all the MD-11's systems, did not indicate that anything was wrong.

 Analysis of both recorders continued last week. Investigators have discovered several anomalies which they are probing in an effort to determine the reliability of data used by the flight crew trying to make an emergency landing at the Halifax airport. But Mr. Gerden admitted the recorders may not provide all the answers.

 "They may tell us only the symptoms of the problem and may not tell us the source of the problem," he said.

 Officials want to examine wiring and aircraft components which could provide additional clues. Two of the jet's engines, discovered on the ocean floor last week, may help the effort. Mr. Gerden said the engines' computer chips may still have data about such things as the plane's speed when it hit the water. The engines remained under about 55 metres of water Monday.

 Meanwhile, the navy said last week that earlier reports of five large pieces of aircraft wreckage resting on the ocean floor about 14 kilometres off Peggy's Cove were incorrect. The sonar first used to log the bottom provided only murky images. Remote-operated vehicles have since filmed the area and those videos show large piles of debris, but no huge pieces of fuselage, covering an area about the size of a hockey rink.

 The largest sections brought to the surface to date were lifted by the American salvage ship USS Grapple. They included a piece of fuselage about six metres by 2.5 metres with several of the plane's small windows and two sections of landing gear which weighed about four tonnes.

 While salvage operations gradually began to lift debris last week, divers from the Canadian and American navies continued efforts to remove human remains from the wreckage. Authorities had said that sections of the fuselage would not be lifted until the large quantity of human remains trapped among the wreckage had been removed, but there was some talk last week that the plan might change. Diving conditions are very hazardous at the site and there was speculation that the wreckage could be lifted with the remains inside. No change in the procedure had been announced by Monday, however, and the slow process of retrieving remains persisted.

 The province's chief medical examiner had identified only 10 victims of Flight 111 by Monday despite the recovery of an estimated two tonnes of human remains. He had not released their identities except to say that none were members of the flight crew. Dr. John Butt said one identification had been made visually and others using dental records and fingerprints.

 The RCMP announced Thursday that remains of 142 crash victims - 75 males and 67 females - had been analyzed for DNA profiles. Those samples were taken from the remains recovered in the first week following the crash. More samples are being sent to labs daily.

 The problem now, authorities said, is getting DNA samples from victims' families and personal belongings - anything from relatives' blood samples to toothbrushes or combs is needed. Only about 80 families had provided samples by late last week.

 Beach searches were gradually scaled down recently as less and less debris washed ashore. Most volunteers from Ground Search and Rescue crews were sent home and members of the military continued with searches in some areas. Helicopters continued doing visual sweeps checking if further debris had washed ashore.

 The Department of Fisheries and Oceans lifted the exclusion order banning boats from the area between Ketch Harbour and Stonehurst late September 15. The recovery area where Operation Persistence efforts continue remains closed to shipping.


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