Investigators searching for a cause of Sunday night's deadly crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 as it left Detroit's Metropolitan Airport focused on the plane's engines Monday.
Bound for Phoenix and Orange County's John Wayne Airport, the twin-engine MD-80 crashed seconds after takeoff just beyond the perimeter of the airport, killing as many as 156 people, two of them on the ground.
Witnesses, including air traffic controllers, said they saw flames coming from the plane's left engine, which, they said, exploded seconds before the plane swerved and crashed on a busy highway.
"At this point, all we have are the barest facts," said John Lauber, chief spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash.
"Some eyewitnesses have reported seeing an in-flight fire before impact," Lauber said late Monday, "and other eyewitnesses report seeing no such fire before impact. . . ."
Lauber said that 25 eyewitnesses were interviewed Monday and that the differences in observations illustrate how difficult the investigation will be.
Investigators also examined the remains of both engines, which were lying under an interstate highway overpass near the end of the aircraft's deadly skid.
Lauber, who also headed the investigation of the Aug. 31, 1986, Aeromexico crash in Cerritos, Calif., said the core of the left engine had been inspected and "we found no evidence of an uncontained failure . . . or any evidence of an in-flight fire."
"We haven't ruled out anything," and it was too early to tell if there had been a "contained" failure in the left engine, he said.
Lauber said only the right engine is still covered by its outer cowling but insisted that "there is no evidence of an uncontained failure of either engine." Lauber identified the engine as the Pratt & Whitney JT8D-217.
The disaster unfolded in a similar fashion to the August, 1985, crash of a British Airtours Boeing 737 equipped with another version of the engine, the JT8D-15.
One of the engines on that plane exploded and caught fire, authorities said, as the fully loaded plane reached takeoff speed at Manchester. Fifty-four people were killed and 83 survived.
In Milwaukee the next month, a Midwest Express DC-9 crashed shortly after takeoff, with a loss of all 31 aboard. NTSB investigators found a hole about four inches square near the top of one of its Pratt & Whitney JT8D-7 engines, apparently ripped by fragments of compressor blades that were found near the runway.
Monday it was disclosed that U.S. officials had been concerned about the engines on the MD-80 airliner for several months.
Last April, the NTSB, now in charge of the Northwest Airlines investigation, urged that all JT8D 200-series engines be inspected because a 1 1/2-by-15-inch tear was found in the outer skin of one of the engines on an American Airlines MD-80. That plane encountered trouble in flight and landed safely at Minneapolis.
At the time, the NTSB said the engine was damaged when a series of locking pins broke inside the engine.
Similar engine failures were reported by American Airlines and Muse Airlines in December, 1986, and by Pacific Southwest Airlines in March, 1985, the NTSB said.
In those incidents the planes landed safely.
Less than three weeks ago the Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice asking the airline industry to comment on a proposed directive requiring special inspection of the engines, focusing on the locking pins.
A Northwest Airlines spokeswoman, Eunice Burnham, said Monday night that the inspections "had been done and corrections had been made prior to any suggestion by the FAA."
Meanwhile, the airline indicated that it had ruled out sabotage in Sunday night's crash, the second-worst accident involving a single plane in U.S. history. The deadliest was the 1979 crash of an American Airlines DC-10 in Chicago.
MD-80s are a widely used, updated version of the DC-9. The plane's two engines are mounted on the fuselage between the wings and the tail.
Witnesses said the Northwest plane appeared to be in trouble almost as soon as it left the ground. The plane dipped to the left, then the right, then the left, first clipping the top of a 41-foot light pole in an airport parking lot.
Then it hit an Avis Car Rental office, knocking a chunk out of the building before crashing in flames on Middlebelt Road, a major north-south highway running along the airport's eastern boundary.
A preliminary, rough transcript of a conversation between air traffic controllers and the pilot, which Lauber said is "difficult to understand," does not indicate that the pilot reported any kind of trouble to the tower.
As more than 100 federal investigators swarmed over the crash site, where bright yellow sheets covered bodies scattered along the path of the wreckage, technicians in Washington began decoding the plane's flight recorder and listening to the cockpit recorder--both recovered hours after the plane crashed.
Lauber said there appears to be usable data on the flight and voice recorders recovered from the wreckage. He said there was no evidence of sabotage.
Investigators walked the flight path Monday, gathered information on weather at the time of the crash and began interviewing airport workers.
Today one team of investigators will fly to Atlanta to examine the flight crew's training records and another team will fly to Minneapolis to examine Northwest's records at its headquarters there. Detroit, the nation's 13th-busiest airport, is Northwest's other major hub.
At a makeshift morgue, Wayne County officials aided by the FBI began the difficult task of identifying the badly burned remains of the passengers.
Authorities were having a difficult time identifying victims of the crash because of the intense fires and the impact, which scattered debris and victims over a charred mile-long section of highway.
Authorities also disagreed about the exact death toll.
Wayne County officials said two people had died on the ground and Lauber said 152 aboard the plane died.
But Northwest spokesman Kevin Whalen said the airline believed that at least 154 people died on the plane. "The infant count is going up," he said.
The airline said 155 people might have been on the plane. Late Monday, officials confirmed that a 4-year-old girl hospitalized at Ann Arbor had been a passenger on the plane and is the sole survivor.
She was identified as Cecilia Cichan, who was hospitalized in critical condition. She was found crying, folded under the body of a woman in the wreckage. It was not known if the woman was her mother.
One of those known to have perished in the crash was Nick Vanos, 24, backup center for the Phoenix Suns professional basketball team. (Details in Sports, Page 5.)
The identities of many other passengers were being withheld by Northwest Airlines more than 24 hours after the crash.
Relatives of the victims gathered at two airport hotels, where airline personnel and sheriff's deputies guarded their privacy while a platoon of clergymen sought to comfort them.
"Some don't want to talk," said the Rev. Larry Sharpless, Detroit police chaplain. "They just want to have someone put an arm around them.
"Some are angry because they were told there might be some survivors, and now when they get here, there are no survivors."
Staff writer Eric Malnic also contributed to this story.