747 Survivor Tells of Jet Breaking Up : Sections of Ceiling Fell; JAL Craft ‘Weaved Wildly’
An off-duty flight attendant who survived the Japan Air Lines disaster said Wednesday that about half an hour before the jumbo jet slammed into a mountain with 524 people aboard, she heard a loud “bam” sound overhead near the tail, the air in the cabin turned “white” and parts of the ceiling collapsed.
Soon after the first sign of trouble, the plane began to sway and weave wildly and went into “a steep descent,” said Yumi Ochiai, 26, an assistant purser who is one of four survivors. “It seemed like it was going straight down.”
Ochiai, who suffered pelvic and arm fractures, told her story from a hospital bed as a third fragment from the plane’s rear section was discovered in Sagami Bay, 100 miles from the crash site. The heavily loaded plane was bound from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to the western city of Osaka when it crashed in the Japanese Alps on Monday night.
Rudder Piece Found
The third fragment was identified as coming from the lower part of the rudder, behind the tail fin. It bore the letters AL, from the JAL in the airline’s logo.
Earlier, a large part of the tail fin and a six-foot fiber-glass tube from the Boeing 747’s auxiliary power unit were also found in the bay.
The discoveries in Sagami Bay and Ochiai’s eyewitness report indicated that major parts of the airplane’s tail, as well as at least one piece from the rear of the fuselage, fell off--or were torn off--before the crash. Aviation experts said the in-flight disintegration could explain why the pilot could not control the aircraft as it staggered far off course and plunged at sunset into remote, heavily forested 5,408-foot Mt. Osutaka, 70 miles northwest of Tokyo.
So far, however, there has been no explanation as to what might have caused parts of the aircraft to break off.
Developments in the world’s worst single-aircraft disaster unfolded rapidly Wednesday and today.
Suspect Door Intact
The right rear cabin door, which the pilot, Capt. Masami Takahama, 49, reported had “broken” in radio communications with air-traffic controllers, was found intact at the crash site, ending speculation that the door might have broken off in flight and struck the tail fin.
A thin, 19 1/2-inch-high piece of the tail fin, attached to a piece of fuselage, was all that was found of the tall tail fin at the crash site. The rounded rear of the fuselage was also missing.
The investigators’ inability to find major parts of the tail indicate that all of it may have broken off in flight.
Rescue workers recovered both the plane’s flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder in debris in which the bodies of more than 200 people were believed to be buried.
The Japanese Transportation Ministry disclosed the radar-tracked route the plane flew to its fate. It showed that the plane repeatedly weaved from left to right--and at one point made a complete circle.
Early today, the ministry also issued “emergency instructions” to all four Japanese airlines to conduct inspections of all of their 69 jumbo jet aircraft within 300 hours and ordered any 747 not subjected to such an inspection to be grounded. For 747s with more than 15,000 flights, the ministry ordered the airlines to complete inspections within 100 hours. Seven areas of the aircraft were specified for special attention, including the tail fin, its attachments to the main body of the aircraft, and the rudder.
Yasumoto Takagi, president of the airline, which is partly government-owned, told Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone that he assumes responsibility for the accident, JAL’s second fatal crash in the last three years, and will resign “at an appropriate time” in the near future. Takagi later made the same announcement at a news conference.
Nakasone agreed to accept Takagi’s resignation and was reported to be considering appointing Naoshi Machida, a former Transportation Ministry bureaucrat who is now a vice president of JAL, to succeed him.
The prime minister also told Takagi he is not pleased with the airline’s recent operations record. Nakasone complained of an incident three years ago when a mentally ill JAL pilot tried to nose-dive an aircraft into Tokyo Bay, causing a crash that killed 24 persons, and another incident last month when a chartered JAL plane Nakasone took on a tour of Europe developed an oil leak before takeoff. The prime minister and his party were forced to wait in the aircraft at Haneda Airport for nearly two hours as repairs were made.
Meanwhile, rescue parties made up of firefighters, police officers and 4,500 members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces loaded 200 bodies onto helicopters at a hastily built heliport on a mountain ridge at the crash site and flew them to a makeshift morgue in a gymnasium in the nearby town of Fujioka. Relatives had identified only 74 of the bodies, many of which were badly burned and mangled.
U.S. Experts Arrive
Among the bodies identified were those of the father and sister of Keiko Kawakami, 12, one of the survivors, and the 9-year-old son of Hiroko Yoshizaki, 34, another survivor. Her daughter, Mikiko, 8, also survived. The body of Takahama, the pilot, was also identified.
Nine American experts--five from the plane’s manufacturer, Boeing Co., and four from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board--arrived to join the investigation.
One of the fragments found earlier in Sagami Bay, a pipe that was an air duct to the auxiliary power unit near the plane’s tail, offered the best testimony yet that whatever happened to the plane 13 minutes after takeoff was very severe. The equipment was built into the craft’s fuselage, not the tail fin, airline officials said. The auxiliary power unit, a gas turbine engine, is used to operate the lights and air conditioning when the plane is on the ground.
It was at 6:25 p.m. Monday--13 minutes after takeoff--that Takahama sent an emergency signal to Tokyo air controllers.
That was also the moment at which Ochiai, a JAL flight attendant for about two years, recalled hearing what she described to JAL executives at her bedside Wednesday as a loud “bam” sound. (In Japanese, she described the sound as “Baaan!”)
‘Bam!’ Then Ears Hurt
Until then, she had been reading a magazine, she said, and “nothing different from any other flight had occurred.”
Ochiai, who is hospitalized in stable condition in Fujioka, said she was in an aisle seat, 56C, in the third row from the back of the plane, almost directly below the point at which the front of the tail fin, or vertical stabilizer, is attached to the fuselage.
(In the middle section of the specially designed 747-SR jumbos flown by JAL, there are two extra rows of seats, extending back to Row 60. The Kawakami girl was in Row 60 and the Yoshizakis were in Row 54, all in the middle section).
Ochiai gave the account of her ordeal to two JAL executives. An airline spokesman repeated it at a news conference in Tokyo.
“At 6:25, there was a ‘Bam!’ sound overhead,” Ochiai said. “Then, my ears began to hurt. I don’t know if a door flew off or not. I did not hear any other explosion sound from the floor or anywhere else.
Ceiling Fell Down
“At the same time, the (air) inside the cabin turned pure white,” she said, apparently from condensation caused by sudden pressure loss and subsequent cooling of the air.
“The ventilation hole beneath the crew seat opened (to adjust for the sudden difference in air pressure between the passenger cabin and the baggage compartment below). The floor did not bulge upward.
“The ceiling above the lavatory fell down. At the same time, the automatic (oxygen) masks dropped and the prerecorded announcement began.
As alarm bells rang, the recorded announcement told the passengers: “We are now flying in an emergency condition. Please put on the oxygen mask. Please fasten your seat belt. Please extinguish all cigarettes. We are now flying in an emergency condition.”
Flew in ‘Dutch Roll’
“The plane flew rather wobbly and appeared to go into a Dutch roll (an oscillating motion in which the plane simultaneously yaws and rolls, with its nose turning from side to side while its wing tips tilt up and down).
“Soon, I saw Mt. Fuji on the left and--although there was no announcement from the cockpit--I thought we were going back to Haneda (Tokyo’s domestic airport).
“In about 10 minutes, the oxygen stopped but I had no trouble breathing,” she continued. “During this time, there were no announcements from the cockpit, but a purser announced that an emergency situation had occurred.
“Together, with the duty stewardess in the rear section, I went around to instruct the customers how to put on their life vests and how to assume a safety position (leaning forward with one’s head between the legs). After that, I fastened my seat belt and assumed a safety position.
“Finally, the plane started to descend steeply,” she said. “It seemed like it was going straight down.”
“Soon, there were two or three strong shocks,” she said, as the plane hit the mountainside.
“Seats, cushions and other objects around me flew into the air. Seats fell on top of me, and I couldn’t move. My stomach hurt so bad it felt like it was going to be torn to pieces. Finally, with all the strength I could muster, I was able to unfasten the seat belt.
“But I was pinned between seats and couldn’t move.
“I saw a helicopter and waved, but it didn’t appear to see me. There were no fires around me. Finally, I went to sleep.
“When I was wakened by a man’s voice, it was morning,” Ochiai said. She and the other three survivors were rescued Tuesday, more than 16 hours after the crash occurred.
A JAL technician explained to newsman Wednesday that the right rear door that Takahama reported “broken” was found intact at the crash site, still attached to a section of the fuselage. The top of the door, its handle still in a locked, or closed, position, was slightly bent but otherwise the door was not severely damaged, he said.
Toshio Nishijima, an expert of the Science and Technology Agency’s metallurgical institute, examined the large segment of the aircraft’s vertical stabilizer found in the bay Tuesday and said that “some kind of powerful force appeared to have ripped the part off.” He said visual examination alone indicated that “metal fatigue,” or a gradual process of tiny cracks developing into large fissures in metal, did not the cause the fragment to split off.
Seven years ago, the ill-fated aircraft scraped the rear bottom of its fuselage while landing at Osaka airport, an accident that some Japanese aviation experts said might have begun a process of metal fatigue. The aircraft had flown about 18,000 flights, 12,000 of them since the 1978 accident.
Tsutomu Sakai, a JAL pilot, told a television interviewer here that losing the section of vertical stabilizer found in the bay would not, by itself, make the aircraft inoperable. But if the entire tail fin fell off, “then it would no longer be an airplane,” Sakai said. “Operations would be impossible.”
The toll from Monday’s crash far exceeded the 346 who died in the 1974 crash of a Turkish Douglas DC-10 near Paris, the worst previous single-aircraft accident.