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Swissair Tragedy


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Crash information beginning to emerge



Lisa Brown
Lighthouse staff

 PEGGY'S COVE - More information about problems in the cockpit of Swissair Flight 111 is beginning to emerge as investigators continue to probe the cause of the September 2 crash that killed 229 people.

 Lead accident investigator Vic Gerden of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada confirmed Friday that parts of a cockpit seat cover which have been recovered show signs of heat damage. Further testing is being done at an Ottawa lab.

 The flight data recorder which was recovered September 6 is also beginning to reveal information, despite not having recorded the flight's last six minutes. At a press conference in Ottawa Saturday, another safety board official said data the flight crew were using was "progressively becoming unreliable" before the flight data recorder stopped.

 It ceased recording at 10:25 p.m., seconds after the crew of Flight 111 declared an emergency and told air traffic control it had to land immediately. From that point on, the McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 looped in a circle off the Aspotogan Peninsula and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean between Peggy's Cove and East Ironbound. All 215 passengers and 14 crew members en route from New York to Geneva were killed.

 The second so-called black box, the cockpit voice recorder, was recovered around 6 p.m. Friday in about 55 metres of water near where the flight data recorder was found. It arrived in Ottawa before midnight.

 Measuring 12 centimetres by 12 centimetres enclosed in a protective case, the cockpit voice recorder tapes conversations, engine noises and warning sounds from instruments, continuously recycling tape every half hour.

 Over the weekend, officials said they have 30 minutes of voices on the recorder as well as surrounding sounds. Director of air investigations John Maxwell called it "a lot to work with" although officials have not said which 30 minutes the recorder contains.

 Regardless of what the second recorder reveals, investigators said last week no transcript of the tape will ever be released to the public. Canadian law restricts access to the recordings and they are used strictly for the purpose of advancing transportation safety. Mr. Gerden said last week that some facts about specific events or activities and analysis of ambient noises may be released to "facilitate understanding" of the disaster.

 A transcript of conversations between air traffic controllers and the cockpit crew was released last week.

 The salvage rescue ship USS Grapple moved into position over the wreckage Sunday about 14 kilometres off Peggy's Cove. Five major pieces of the aircraft are located on the ocean floor there.

 Because the American ship cannot drop anchor in the debris field, the Coast Guard ship Earl Grey, one of several involved in ongoing salvage efforts, sunk four concrete moorings for the Grapple Sunday. The four mooring points secured the Grapple in a fixed position in preparation to lift the aircraft sections. With a lifting capacity of 36 tonnes, the Grapple and her crew have experience in ocean lifts. The U.S. Navy ship retrieved pieces of the TWA jet that went down off New York in 1996.

 Although the Grapple was prepared to lift Monday, none of the large pieces of the wreckage were brought to the surface. Officials have repeatedly said that the fuselage will not be lifted until all human remains are removed.

 That task began last Thursday as Navy and RCMP divers, wearing weighted boots, began working around twisted metal and jagged debris on the sea floor. Navy officials have called the work "almost heroic" given the conditions and the gruesome mission of recovering remains.

 Meanwhile, the team of pathologists led by Nova Scotia's chief medical examiner Dr. John Butt announced the identification of a another victim by dental records Saturday and three more victims Monday. That brought the total number of identifications to eight of the 229 people on board Flight 111.

 HMCS Preserver handed over control of Operation Persistence to Nova Scotia's warship HMCS Halifax early Friday. The Halifax and her crew of 230 will remain at sea off Peggy's Cove overseeing salvage and recovery efforts for three weeks.

 The size of the no-shipping zone imposed a few days after the crash was reduced Saturday. It had been extended from eastern points of Lunenburg County to Ketch Harbour, Halifax County, but the Coast Guard opened the west end of Mahone Bay to free up the Chester area.

 Although the zone was modified, the floating debris field continued to expand. Debris has been discovered as far away as Lawrencetown Beach. People are still being asked not to touch whatever they find that might be related to the crash, but to notify their nearest detachment of the RCMP.

 Helicopters continue to do visual sweeps of the coastline looking for debris from the crash. Military and volunteer searchers push on with efforts to collect human remains and bits of aircraft from the shores of St. Margarets and Mahone bays.

 Late last week, officials said only two per cent of the aircraft had been collected. Mr. Gerden said the jet will be reconstructed as needed to assist the investigation. When the large sections of the wreckage are retrieved, they will be transported to Shearwater where that reconstruction is taking place.

 While the retrieval of human remains continues to be the first priority, Swissair announced Monday that Flight 111 was carrying 59 kilos of valuables as cargo. They included almost 50 kilos of banknotes, a kilo of diamonds, two kilos of watches and almost five kilos of jewellery. There were also two works of art on board, one of them Pablo Picasso's Le Peintre. The cargo payload also included 240 kilos of express mail and 200 kilos of regular mail.

 Late Monday, the Navy announced it would use an Aurora aircraft to re-enact parts of the downed passenger jet's flight path early Tuesday morning.


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