Hopes for Survivors Evaporate, Officials Search for Clues to Crash
PUERTO PLATA, Dominican Republic _ Rescuers have called off their search for victims and survivors of Flight 301, and officials today will focus on recovering the aircraft’s ``black box″ and other clues to the crash.
With less than half the 189 victims accounted for and hopes fast evaporating, rescuers working in inflatable rafts ended their two-day search in the Atlantic Ocean at sundown Thursday.
The U.S. Navy was planning to introduce some new equipment to the investigation: a listening device to try to pick up audio signals from the flight data recorders, and a robot to search for wreckage and bodies that may lie 4,300 feet below on the ocean floor.
The Boeing 757, rented by the tiny local Alas Nacionales airline, apparently nose-dived into the Atlantic with no warning, 12 miles from this northwestern resort, about five minutes after taking off Tuesday night. Most of the passengers were Germans returning from a tropical holiday.
Conflicting reports left questions unanswered and hampered the investigation. Was the Boeing 757 ready to fly? Why was it substituted for another plane an hour before flight time? And who was responsible for operating the plane?
Equipped with medical and dental records, German forensic scientists with the help of family members were expected today to help identify victims. Relatives of the deceased waited at the docks.
Fritz Voll walked into a fenced area, where two seafood refrigerator truck-trailers were being used as a morgue, to try to identify his mother, sister and aunt. They had come visiting from his hometown, Heidelberg.
``I’m just glad they spent the last three weeks of their lives with us, in a place where they were happy,″ Voll, a Dominican resident, told reporters. He broke down, crying, before they could ask the victims’ names.
German Ambassador Edmund Duckwitz said he did not expect any bodies to be identified before Saturday or Sunday.
Authorities on Thursday lowered the count of bodies retrieved from the ocean from 129 to about 80.
``Some of the bodies have only a few parts, so we don’t know who they belong to, or how many people they belong to,″ Health Minister Victor Garcia Santo explained.
The plane exploded with a force that reduced coffee cans to compressed tin, U.S. Coast Guard officials said. ``The (aircraft) pieces we’ve found are extremely small,″ said Capt. Brian Bezio of the Portland, Maine-based Jefferson Island cutter.
On the cutter’s deck, a Dominican official emptied a tan leather handbag recovered Thursday. She put a green German passport and some money into a plastic bag, and returned air tickets and other papers to the purse.
The crash comes as Dominican officials were hoping to get recertification to fly their carriers to the United States. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration barred them in 1994.
Lt. Col. Manuel Mendez Segara, a top Dominican aviation official, said Dominicans have worked with the FAA for 2 1/2 years to bring Dominican safety procedures up to standards. They were doing so well that U.S. officials wanted to use their new regulatory structure as a model for 26 other barred nations, he said.
There was no immediate response from the FAA.