In hushed tones, the living spoke of heroes and miracles Thursday as investigators crawled through a cornfield and hunted for the dead--and for clues to what brought a United Airlines DC-10 jetliner crashing down short of Sioux Gateway Airport and sent it pinwheeling apart in flames.
Much of the praise was spoken for Capt. A. C. Haynes, the pilot of Flight 232, a 33-year United veteran who flew the lumbering jet without full power and without any hydraulics for a desperate 42 minutes while doctors, nurses, policemen and firemen prepared below for a disaster that everyone expected to be far worse.
One day after Flight 232 crashed late Wednesday afternoon as it flew from Denver to Chicago, rescuers counted 76 dead, 43 missing--and 174 survivors. In Washington, President Bush extended sympathy to victims and their families and praised the "extraordinary efforts" of those who saved so many lives.
The investigators focused on an apparent explosion in the tail engine of the plane and what Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Fred Farrar called "complete hydraulic failure." Rachel Halterman, spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators searched the crash area--three football fields long--"inch by inch" for parts of the plane.
Along with medical teams from Sioux City, the surrounding county and the state of Iowa, the investigators hunted as well for the remains of more victims, some scattered the length and breadth of the cornfield. Other bodies were thought to be inside the fuselage. "It will be very tough to get in there," City Manager Hank Sinda said. "There's about four feet of debris."
Survivors praised Haynes, his flight crew and those on the ground who brought them and so many other passengers through the ordeal alive. "Our pilot was a hero," survivor John Transue, 40, told Reuters news service. "He really saved our butts.
"The flames were coming in the airplane while we were skidding," he said, clearly in awe. "The whole nose section of the plane just disappeared."
Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad visited Haynes in the hospital and said the pilot was quite emotional. "Tears came to his eyes when he talked about the number of people who lost their lives," Branstad said. "I told him he did a valiant job."
Other pilots described what Haynes had done.
J. P. Martin, a commercial flier in the Sioux City area who monitored the radio conversation between Haynes and air traffic controllers, said Haynes had told them: "Nothing really works."
Another commercial pilot, who asked to remain anonymous, said that meant that Haynes could "move the wheel around, but there's nothing there--with no hydraulic power whatsoever, basically all he's got is the engines."
Haynes had "nothing left," a source close to the investigation confirmed. He said the pilot flew the plane by using asymmetrical power settings on its two remaining engines--one on each wing. By changing and varying engine speeds, this source said, Haynes was able to change the altitude and direction of the aircraft.
He "played one of the engines off the other," the source said. He compared it to rowing harder on one oar than the other to change the direction of a rowboat.
As difficult as that was, Haynes faced even more difficulty when it came time to land the jet, said the pilot of another DC-10. Coming in without any hydraulic system whatsoever meant "no slats, no flaps (to slow the plane down)--so he's going like a striped ape. He's got to pull the power off to land, and, the minute he does that, he hasn't got anything to steer the plane with . . . .
"You start losing hydraulic power, you're in a lot of trouble.
"You haven't got a hell of a lot to fly with."
Other survivors praised rescuers on the ground, who prepared frantically as Haynes kept the stricken jet in the air. The plane carried 11 crew members and 282 passengers, including three infants--but rescuers had no idea at first just how many casualties to expect. They had drilled earlier this year for an imaginary disaster, and the practice paid off.
David J. Greco, the emergency medical director at Marian Health Care Center in Sioux City, activated the disaster plan when the plane was still 32 miles from touchdown.
Hundreds of Rescuers
So swift was the response that hundreds of doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, policemen, firemen, National Guardsmen and other personnel were at their stations at the Sioux City airport or in local hospitals several minutes before the jet finally crashed.
When the plane hit, it littered the ground with thousands of chunks of debris only inches in size, Greco said. Bodies were strapped three abreast in bench seats that were thrown clear of the fuselage and had rolled on their own down a runway. "They looked like they had been rolling for up to a half mile at high speeds," he said.
Most of the dead appeared to have suffered "terrible injuries to the top of their heads, arms and legs," the areas that had been most exposed during their chaotic tumble, Greco said. Their torsos, cushioned by the seats, were largely intact.
"And then we saw some people walking towards us," he said. "It just amazed us that there were people not even injured at all, barely scratched. They appeared to be coming from the large piece of fuselage in the cornfield where the airplane finally ended up. There was a section that remained intact, and these passengers were upside down in their belts, they said . . . . Those were the passengers that escaped with minor injuries--rows 9 through 19."
Greco said the injured were scattered along more than a mile, many of them hundreds of feet apart.
"We had to run 200 yards between patients," he said.
To Jeri Priest back in Denver, what happened was a miracle.
Her son's office had called her at work to tell her that her son Garry's flight had crashed in Sioux City.
"I just knew Garry had died because he'd called that morning and told me goodby," she said. And that, she said, was unusual.
"Around 11 a.m., the phone rang and it was him. He said he was at the airport heading to Chicago, and he said, 'I just thought I'd call and tell you goodby and say I love you.' Garry never says goodby."
She rushed home in a panic. A half hour passed, and suddenly the phone rang. It was Garry, calling from a National Guard station in Sioux City to tell her he was OK.
He had suffered only a black eye and a cut finger.
"Gary thought he had died," his mother said. "A swish of air came through the plane, and all he saw was smoke at one end and light at the other end.
"He thought the light meant he had died, and when he walked out and found himself in (a) cornfield . . . (and) then looked back and saw how bad the plane was, he was sure he was dead."
After getting home Thursday, Garry Priest surrounded himself with his family and friends, watching news accounts of the tragedy on television and growing teary-eyed.
"It's changed Garry," his mother said.
"All he talks about is the dead people he saw. He told me: 'Mom, there was a body with no arms, no legs and no head. Just a body.' "
Although the investigation centered on the rear engine of the plane and a missing engine fan, General Electric Co., the manufacturer of the engine, said the model used on this DC-10 has an "admirable reliability record."
Jim Burnett, a member of the NTSB, said the fan of one engine could not be found at the crash site.
Aviation experts said that fan debris from an engine explosion might have damaged the body of the plane and the hydraulic system that the pilot uses to steer it.
Evidence of a mid-air explosion included the fact that one piece of the plane was found more than 50 miles from the crash site.
Crippled by the loss of hydraulic power, the plane pitched violently to the right only a few feet from the ground, scraped its right wing and cartwheeled into a ball of fire. It broke into pieces as it rolled.
"The flight recorder will be going back to Washington sometime today," an NTSB spokeswoman said. "And we'll start interviewing the crew and the survivors, eyewitnesses and everybody we can.
"We're also collecting maintenance records on the plane," she said.
United spokesmen refused to speculate about the cause of the crash but said the DC-10 had been well maintained.
C. O. Miller, former chief investigator for the NTSB and now an aviation safety consultant, said investigators would focus on these questions:
--What caused the rear engine to fail.
--Whether additional containment around the engine would have kept parts of it from damaging the rest of the plane during an explosion.
--Why the hydraulic system failed.
--Whether the actions of the pilot and his crew were correct.
--Whether stronger seating would have saved more lives.
STRING OF CRISES--Iowa plane crash is latest challenge for United Chairman Stephen M. Wolf. Business, Page 1.