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U.S. Navy Ship Helps Crash Recovery

September 9, 1998

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (AP) _ A U.S. Navy salvage ship carrying deep-sea divers and equipment capable of lifting up to 300 tons arrived Wednesday to help search for the wreckage of Swissair Flight 111.

The USS Grapple, which helped with the undersea recovery of wreckage of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island in 1996, steamed in with 117 on board, including 30 divers.

Before heading out, the ship was to be equipped with diving equipment and a remote-controlled submarine with a black-and-white video camera and two retrieval arms.

While searching, most of the divers will wear hardhats with attached hoses through which air will be pumped directly from the boat, allowing them to stay under water longer.

Swissair Flight 111 crashed into the Atlantic off Nova Scotia on Sept. 2, killing all 229 people aboard. The McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 jetliner went down more than an hour after taking off from New York for Geneva.

Swissair and the Boeing Co. were served with a $50 million lawsuit this morning by former boxing champion Jake LaMotta, whose son was aboard the flight. It apparently was the first lawsuit filed after the crash.

A separate Navy team from Florida arrived Tuesday, equipped with an experimental laser camera to cut through the undersea gloom. The laser camera was expected to provide investigators with images to map and locate objects as small as a seashell, said Gary Kekelis, who heads the sensing technologies division at the Navy’s Coastal Systems Station in Panama City, Fla.

Kekelis said the equipment is designed for use in coastal waters where turbid seas and underwater noise can complicate searches with conventional sonar and photography.

The images will be taken from a 25-foot unmanned torpedo-shaped craft dragged deep below the surface by the Canadian coast guard boat Hudson. Surrounded by computer monitors and in small rooms aboard the boat, the Navy team will examine the data and report what they find to the searchers.

A Canadian navy spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Mike Considine, said the U.S. help is welcome.

``Let’s face it, the U.S. Navy is probably the most capable in the world,″ he said. ``We would like to think that if the tables were reversed and there was something we could do to help them, we would.″

Another Swissair MD-11 was unable to take off from Zurich today because of problems with its air conditioning system, Swissair spokesman Peter Gutknecht said. More than 200 Los Angeles-bound passengers had to be put on a replacement plane, while the MD-11 was taken to the hangar for repairs.

On Tuesday, investigators released a more complete version of the last minutes of conversation between Flight 111′s pilots and an air traffic control tower in Moncton, New Brunswick.

New details in the transcript included the pilots reporting that they put on their oxygen masks and telling the controllers they would have to fly the plane manually instead of by autopilot.

Most of the conversation, which was heavy in technical terminolgy, involved directing the plane to an area over water where it could dump fuel. At one point, one pilot asked another, in German, if he had the emergency checklist for solving problems with smoke in the air conditioning system.

Divers are trying to retrieve the plane’s cockpit voice recorder, which is still on the sea bottom. A signal from that recorder has been detected, but bad weather Tuesday forced a one-day halt in diving operations.

The plane’s other ``black box″ _ the flight data recorder has been recovered and sent to a laboratory in Ottawa for examination.

Canadian divers have also been trying to confirm if three large pieces of wreckage found near the flight data recorder are sections of the plane’s fuselage.

The chief crash investigator, Vic Gerden, expressed hopes of gaining valuable data from the data recorder even though it stopped working during the final six minutes before crash.

The recorder, retrieved by divers 190 feet underwater, might show how systems aboard the plane failed between the pilots’ initial distress call 16 minutes before the crash and when the machine shut off, he said.

Gerden also said investigators have detected signs of heat damage on fragments of the MD-11′s cockpit, evidence that could help determine why smoke billowed around the pilots before the jetliner crashed.

Gerden said the signs of heat stress have been found so far only on wreckage from the cockpit, not from the passenger cabin. He refused to speculate on the extent of the damage or the exact cause of it.

Update hourly