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Swissair Tragedy

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Officials plan to lift Flight 111 debris

Reporter Credit
Lighthouse staff

 PEGGY'S COVE - With bad weather closing in, investigators probing the crash of Swissair Flight 111 said Monday they've made a tough decision about the retrieval of debris still resting on the ocean floor off Peggy's Cove.

 Although word all along had been that all human remains would be removed before the wreckage was lifted, the slowness of the retrieval operation in the face of worsening storm conditions has forced officials to change that plan. They are now organizing a heavy-lift operation.

 "We would like to get as much of the debris up as possible, including the human remains, because if it stays down there we may never recover it or recover very, very little of it," Jim Harris of the Transportation Safety Board said. "It's a matter of maybe getting stuff up in a big bunch and getting it, or not getting it at all."

 Because the bottom of the Atlantic in that area about 14 kilometres off Peggy's Cove is made up of small rocks, it moves during heavy storms. That increases the risk of losing debris and the remains of the 229 people who died in the September 2 crash.

 "We don't want to do that if we can help it," the spokesman said.

 Diving on the debris field was limited on Sunday and Monday by the weather and heavy seas. Because divers are tethered, lifting them in swells increases the risk.

 The priority continues to be removing human remains with some aircraft pieces being brought up during that effort. To date, officials estimate between five and 10 per cent of the McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 has been recovered.

 "It's all a jumble down there. That's the problem," Mr. Harris said. "The tail pieces are where the nose piece is, where the middle piece is. The wings are mixed up with the fuselage."

 The American salvage ship USS Grapple and her crew have been a valuable addition to Operation Persistence, but whether the ship will be part of the heavy-lift operation has not been determined. A team comprised of representatives of the Transportation Safety Board, Canadian and U.S. military, the RCMP, Coast Guard and other experts is looking at options.

 "They're all working on trying to find a workable alternative method to speed up the recovery," Mr. Harris said. "The Grapple and the divers are doing just a magnificent job down there, but they can only do so much."

 Twisted metal and jagged debris make diving conditions difficult. When pieces of debris are moved, there is no certainty that the piles of wreckage won't tumble over. Officials are concerned for the divers' safety. Mr. Harris said a decision about how the heavy-lift operation is to be carried out will be reached this week.

 Meanwhile, divers recovered Flight 111's FADEC - fully-automated digital engine control - last week. Although it was badly damaged, it has been sent to the manufacturer in the United States to determine if there is any useful information on its computer chip. If enough data is available, officials might be able to mathematically determine things like the aircraft's speed when it hit the water.

 More information about Flight 111's systems might also be available if a third recorder could be found intact, but Mr. Harris said that's unlikely. The quick access recorder is used by the airlines for maintenance reasons. It stores information on quarter-inch mylar tape and is not enclosed in a hard, waterproof case as the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder are. It's also located behind the instrument panel in front of the pilots.

 "It's not in an area that would have been well protected with an accident like this where the nose would be one of the first portions of the aircraft to strike the water," Mr. Harris said. "You always hope in these things."

 Investigators have determined that the plane went in the water more or less nose first, but don't yet know the angle. One wing might have been low, the plane could have been sideways or it might have come straight down - officials can't say. But the few pieces of the cockpit that have been recovered are shattered.

 "As you go back in the plane the pieces get larger which means they didn't suffer the same impact damage that the nose section did," Mr. Harris said.

 The debris field is also compact considering the size of the 150-tonne aircraft. The MD-11 was 61 metres long and 51 metres wide, while the debris field is about 70 metres by 30 metres. There's no chance that the plane skipped along the surface. It hit the water and the pieces stayed in a relatively small area.

 Investigators are still most interested in the cockpit area of the aircraft because the flight crew identified smoke there in conversation with air traffic controllers. That part of the plane includes a lot of wiring and instrumentation. Just below the cockpit is an avionics bay which houses electronic pieces that control other portions of the aircraft.

 "Something was happening there," Mr. Harris said. "We want to take a look at that area to see if there are any tell-tale signs that would indicate what was going on."

 So far, however, experts have little to go on. Very little of the front part of the passenger jet has been recovered.

 "We do know heat stress was there on some of the pieces in the cockpit. There's no doubt about it," Mr. Harris said. "We don't know exactly why that heat stress is there. It could be caused by all sorts of things."

 People shouldn't expect any fast answers. Mr. Harris said the investigation could take a year or longer. The probe into the crash of TWA Flight 800 off New York in July 1996 is still ongoing. But officials here aren't discouraged.

 "I'd like to think that we will find what caused this accident. You've got to be optimistic about this," Mr. Harris said.

 Hundreds of searchers, both military and ground search and rescue volunteers, were called off the beaches along St. Margarets and Mahone bays last week. Three weeks of combing the coastlines for human remains and wreckage left beaches bare.

 Army and RCMP divers who had been searching shallow waters were also pulled and placed on standby. Hundreds of people continue to work on the investigation and deep-water recovery operation.

 The team of medical examiners and RCMP officers working on identifying the remains of crash victims continue their gruelling task. The remains of two more people were identified Monday using dental records, bringing the total number identified to date to 34. Most of those identifications were achieved through dental records, although the first DNA identifications were made last week. Two male victims were identified and a third DNA sample confirmed the fingerprint identification of another man. A fourth match was also achieved using an existing DNA sample and one from the crash.

 The RCMP have created 142 DNA profiles from human remains to date. Analysis is ongoing.

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