Picking through heaps of charred metal, rescue workers Sunday finished recovering the bodies of all 33 people killed in Friday’s collision of a USAir jetliner and a SkyWest commuter plane, while investigators pieced together the sequence of events that led to the fiery crash.
The collision at Los Angeles International Airport occurred when an air traffic controller gave permission to the jetliner, with 89 people aboard, to land on the same runway where she had just directed the commuter plane to await takeoff, federal investigators say.
In new details released Sunday night, the investigators said that a ground radar system was not operating properly and that four light posts may have blocked the controller’s view of the spot where the commuter plane sat on the runway.
“One of these structures was dead in the middle of the intersection,” said one federal investigator.
All 12 people aboard the commuter were killed instantly when it was rear-ended and crushed by the jetliner, and 21 occupants of the USAir flight also died, airline officials and investigators said. Twenty-five people were treated at seven area hospitals for injuries ranging from burns to broken bones.
On Sunday, 27 bodies were recovered in a slow, tedious search through the wreckage. Twenty bodies came from the USAir flight--19 passengers and a flight attendant--and seven bodies were recovered from the commuter plane. On Friday, the bodies of five people who apparently had been hurled from the commuter were recovered from the Tarmac, and on Saturday the body of the USAir pilot was removed from the cockpit.
Throughout the day Sunday, emergency crews using a crane and non-sparking cutting tools dissected the twisted metal to clear the way for Los Angeles County coroner’s officials to find and document bodies, their personal belongings and other means of identification like jewelry or purses.
“It was devastating to see the destruction, particularly the plane underneath,” said Ilona Lewis, chief deputy coroner supervising the body removal. The wreckage represented “one big mangled mess,” she said.
Many of the bodies were found in rows 15 through 17, apparently trying to reach exits in the rear of the USAir fuselage, according to Jim Burnett, an official with the National Transportation Safety Board, which is in charge of the investigation.
The coroner’s office, which has been inundated with telephone calls during the last two days from frantic relatives, warned it will take weeks to identify the bodies, many of which were burned beyond recognition.
“This latest five (recovered Sunday afternoon) were severely charred,” coroner’s spokesman Bob Dambacher said.
By Sunday, medical examiners had received or were about to receive dental X-rays and other records for 95% of the victims, Dambacher said.
The recovery of the bodies had been delayed while crews awaited delivery of a crane and while several thousand pounds of potentially explosive jet fuel was drained from the jetliner.
The bustle of LAX terminals was normal Sunday--the crash did not seem to be a topic of many discussions, and the wreckage could not be seen from any passenger waiting area.
But flight delays of up to two hours were reported Sunday because the northern runways, where the crash took place, were closed. Tom Winfrey, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Airports, said the runways would have to be cleaned up before they can be reopened. In the meantime, airliners were being diverted to runways on the south side of LAX.
“It has diminished our capacity pretty significantly,” Winfrey said. He said travelers planning to use LAX should check with their airlines for possible flight delays.
While the crash may not have been on the minds of travelers, residents at an apartment building near the airport sat on their balconies with binoculars and long-angle camera lenses to watch investigators examine debris from the wreckage.
Wearing white face masks, rescue workers in orange, blue and yellow uniforms stood at the top of two passenger loading ramps, tossing charred pieces of rubble onto a conveyor belt.
Occasionally, a white sheet, apparently covering a body, could be seen moving down the belt toward waiting coroner vans.
A pickup truck hauled away a portion of the jet’s nose cone on Sunday; Saturday night, the 75-foot truck-mounted crane lifted the tail of the USAir jetliner to expose the interior. The tail and other chunks of the plane’s fuselage were taken to a nearby hangar.
Meanwhile, the investigation into the cause of the crash continued. Federal authorities who listened to the tape recorded conversations between the air traffic control tower and the two crews determined that a controller had allowed the jetliner to land on runway 24-Left one minute and 12 seconds after she had placed the commuter plane on the same landing strip.
The tape recordings suggest the controller was confused and harried, said Burnett of the NTSB.
The NTSB has asked the Federal Aviation Administration, which employs controllers, to supply urine and blood samples from the controller and from her supervisor. Burnett declined to identify the controller but said she was a “fully qualified” employee with more than eight years’ experience with the FAA.
FAA spokesman Fred O’Donnell said a urine test was conducted but that FAA policy does not require a blood test. The results were not released.
The controller and her supervisor have been placed on administrative duty and will not handle air traffic until the investigation is concluded--a standard procedure after a crash.
NTSB investigators have not interviewed the controller. “We have not yet attempted to schedule an interview with her because we are not ready yet,” Burnett said.
Questions remained, meanwhile, about what happened inside the cockpits of the two air carriers in the moments before Friday’s disaster.
As they were preparing to land, the cockpit crew of the USAir jetliner would have been able to hear the controller positioning the commuter plane on the runway in front of them, veteran pilots said Sunday.
But the USAir crew might not have realized the runway was blocked because pilots listening to the cacophony of calls to as many as a dozen different planes tend to block out all those not addressed directly to them, said Dick Russell, who spent 37 years as a commercial airline pilot.
“You should be able to hear it,” Russell said. “It probably would be there. But it might not register.”
Russell, who said he had made hundreds of landings at LAX, many of them on that same runway, also said that at night, the crew of the USAir jet probably would not have been able to see the dimly lighted commuter plane, waiting about 2,400 feet down the runway, until it was too late to stop or swerve to avoid the collision.
According to investigators, the SkyWest plane taxied from the south side of the terminal complex, where its passengers had boarded, to the north side of the field about 6 p.m. The twin-prop plane used Taxiway 48, which crosses the airfield at midpoint.
Tape recordings indicate that the SkyWest plane called the controller at 6:03:37 to report that it was ready to leave the taxiway and enter Runway 24-Left about one-third of the way down the runway. The controller first told the plane to stop short of the runway.
Five seconds later, according to the tape recordings, the USAir Boeing 737 called the controller to request clearance to land. The request was not acknowledged.
At that moment, the jet was heading roughly west at an altitude of about 2,200 feet over an imaginary point known as “Romen,” where pilots customarily call the control tower for clearance to land. Romen is approximately over the intersection of the Harbor Freeway and 83rd Street, directly in line with Runway 24-Left.
Investigators have not yet revealed which man was at the controls of the jetliner--the captain, Colin F. Shaw, 46, or the First Officer, David Kelly, 33. Under normal circumstances, one crew member does the flying while the other handles radio communications and runs through a pre-landing checklist to make sure the flaps are down, the landing gear has been lowered and a myriad of other tasks have been completed.
“Both men are busy,” Russell said. “It’s a time-intensive period. Their attention is drawn inside the cockpit.”
At 6:04:44, as the USAir jet approached the airport, the controller told the SkyWest plane to “taxi into position and hold"--that is, to roll out onto the runway and stop, facing directly down the runway, in a position ready to take off.
Less than four seconds later, the SkyWest crew reported that it was in position. Andrew J. Lucas, 32, was captain of the aircraft and Frank C. Prentice III, 45, was serving as first officer, but investigators have not been revealed which man was at the controls.
The SkyWest plane did not have its bright landing lights, strobe lights or recognition lights on, and was illuminated only by its dimmer navigation lights and the red rotating beacons on the top and bottom of the fuselage, according to the crew of another taxiing commuter plane.
The NTSB said the lighting configuration used by the SkyWest plane complied with federal regulations, but would have made it harder to see than if it had been fully illuminated.
At 6:05:29, the USAir jetliner again asked for clearance to land. Once again, the controller failed to acknowledge the call.
Burnett, the NTSB official heading up the investigation, said that during this time, the controller was talking with several other aircraft.
Apparently confused as to which plane it was that she saw stationed on the runway at Taxiway 48, she “asked at least two other aircraft whether they were on the runway,” Burnett said. “The other planes said, ‘No.’ ”
In addition, Burnett said, the controller had a “difficult communication” with an Aeromexico flight, with parts of the conversation having to be repeated several times.
At 6:05:52, the USAir jetliner requested clearance to land for the third time. This time, the controller granted the clearance. About 45 seconds later, the big plane touched down on the runway at about 135 m.p.h. Passengers and other witnesses said this part of the landing seemed quite normal.
The jetliner probably touched down about 2,000 to 1,500 feet from where the SkyWest plane sat facing away, ready to take off.
Even if the USAir crew had seen the commuter plane immediately--and there is no indication that they did--it would have been extremely difficult to bring the big jet to a halt or swerve in time to avoid a collision, said veteran pilot Russell.
“You’ve have to be experienced in that sort of (extreme emergency) stop, and only test pilots are,” he said.
Judging from skid marks from the jet’s tires, the USAir crew did not slam on the brakes until their plane was about 750 feet from the SkyWest commuter plane. The skid marks continue in a straight line to the point of impact.
Burnett said evidence at the spot where the planes collided indicates that the jetliner struck the commuter plane squarely from the rear, driving its nose down and its tail up, possibly rolling it entirely over.
The skid marks and a trail of debris then veer diagonally to the left, ending up at the small building against which the charred, mangled wreckage of the two planes came to rest. The building is 1,225 feet west and 625 feet south of the impact point.
The tape recordings shows that at about that moment, a male voice--a controller or a member of some cockpit crew--shouted “What the hell . . . ?”
It is not clear whether the shout came before, during or immediately after the impact.
A few seconds later, in a calm voice, the controller announced that she had observed an accident and asked, over the air, who was in need of assistance.
Also contributing to Times coverage of the crash at Los Angeles International Airport were staff writers Tina Anima, John Chandler, Rich Connell, Paul Feldman, Jesse Katz, Marc Lacey, Jeff Rabin, Iris Schneider, Ronald L. Soble, Tracy Wilkinson and Elaine Woo.
USAir said the following survived the collision Friday night between a USAir 737 and a SkyWest commuter plane at Los Angeles International Airport.
1. Sabriza Abubakarms, Malaysia
2. Marilyn Armor, Washington, D.C.
3. Janet Arrand, London, England
4. Laurie Bell, Columbus, Ohio
5. Dwayne Bennett, Long Beach
6. Timothy Bennett, Citrus Heights
7. Stephen Book, Seal Beach
8. Laurel Bravo, South Euclid, Ohio
9. Steve Broudy, North Hollywood
10. Tatsuo Brown
11. Gerald Buckman, Alameda
12. Gale Carter, Los Angeles
13. Alma Casta, Huber Heights, Ohio
14. Carter Cohn, Los Angeles
15. Gary Dumham, Moorpark, Calif.
16. Wayne Folden, Columbus, Ohio
17. Geraldine Frankoski, Arlington, Va.
18. Paula Garavaglia, Pasadena
19. Alan Gettelman, Burbank
20. Daniel Goss, Ridgecrest, Calif.
21. Mohamed Hallag, Mansfield, Ohio
22. Chul Hong, Canton, Ohio
23. Mike Howorth, Denham, Buck, United Kingdom.
24. Venus Jonesturner, Los Angeles
25. Larry Josephson, Ridgecrest, Calif.
26. Chicheng Kao, Montery Park
27. Hsiaupai Kao, Montery Park
28. John Karns, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
29. Antal Ko, Manhattan Beach
30. Bill Kulucullen, Huntington Beach
31. Janet Kulucullen, Huntington Beach
32. Tessa LeComber, Swindon Wilts, United Kingdom.
33. John Ledbetter, Las Vegas.
34. Tehao Lo, Columbus, Ohio
35. Robert MacDonald, Whittier
36. Mark Mayling, Uxbridge, United Kingdom
37. Michael McCarthy, Point Mugu, Calif.
38. Michael Meyers, Columbus, Ohio
39. Anthony Nicely, South Point, Ohio
40. Richard Parapar, Redondo Beach
41. D. Pelligrini, Dale City, Calif.
42. Kenneth Petty, Los Angeles
43. Shelly Riser, Rockville, Md.
44. Judy Rose, Marengo, Ohio
45. Vickie Rosemeier, Costa Mesa
46. Alysse Rosewater, Newport, Ky.
47. Nirmala Sharmia, Moreno Valley, Calif.
48. Stephen Sippreil, Lancaster
49. Martin Strasen, Manhattan Beach
50. Scott Vaughn, Agoura Hills
51. Christina Voss, Hermosa Beach
52. Constance Winslow, Westherfield, Ct.
53. Mrs. Dayle Zukor, Los Angeles.
54. Ronald Givens, Pinkerton, Ohio
55. Patricia Hodges (flight attendant)
56. Vance Spurgeon (flight attendant)
The following people are hospitalized:
57. Adrian Bell, Ruslip Garden, United Kingdom
58. Brian Dow, Milbury, Mich.
59. Ruth Dow, Milbury, Mich.
60. Bill Heichel, Mansfield, Ohio
61. David Koch, Wichita, Kan.
62. Khalid Minhas, Ocean City, N.J.
63. Rudolph Morfin, Downey.
64. Janet Robinson, San Francisco.
65. Richard Ronk, Mansfield, Ohio
66. Ruby Whinery, Bakersfield
67. William Ibarra, Los Angeles (flight attendant)
68. David Kelly (crew first officer, based in Washington, D.C.)
Note: The airline has not released the identities of any of the 21 people killed in the crash except for two crew members: the pilot, Capt. Colin Shaw, 48, and a flight attendant, Deanna Bethea, both based in Washington, D.C.