Searchers Fan Out Seeking Cause of Charter Crash
GANDER, Newfoundland (AP) _ Scores of searchers returned today to the snow-blanketed hills where a DC-8 packed with U.S. soldiers crashed and exploded, seeking the cause of the disaster that killed all 256 people aboard.
Canadian and U.S. officials initially put the total death toll at 258, with 250 soldiers and eight crew members. But the Pentagon today revised the number of troops aboard to 248.
The four-engine jet crashed early Thursday seconds after takeoff from this airport on Canada’s Atlantic coast.
The servicemen were returning home for Christmas after a six-month tour of duty with the multinational peacekeeping force in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
The bodies of nearly all the victims were at the morgue by late this morning and some autopsies had begun, Air Safety Board spokeswoman Christiane Beaulieu told reporters.
She said officials expected to have all of the bodies removed from the crash site by this afternoon, but had not decided how many autopsies would be performed in Gander.
In Washington, Air Force spokesman Col. Robert J. O’Brien said the Pentagon wanted to begin moving the first remains of victims to a mortuary at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware later today. He said Canadian investigators would determine when the flights could begin.
The Pentagon announced late this morning that two C-141 cargo planes had left Dover for Gander with equipment ″to assist in recovery operations.″ A plane that left at 9:15 a.m. EST carried 18 Army specialists.
Capt. Robert Kramer, a U.S. Army spokesman in Gander, said 44 bodies had been identified and the families notified.
″Names of those identified as missing are being released as primary next- of-kin are notified,″ the Pentagon said in a statement today.
The plane’s flight recorders were recovered by late Thursday, but a Canadian official cautioned that pinpointing the reasons behind the tragedy could prove ″time-consuming.″
Ms. Beaulieu told reporters earlier in the morning that the search team had 100 Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers, 140 Canadian military personnel and 40 investigators from the safety board. Later, she said the plane’s four engines had been located as workers tagged the wreckage.
She said officials had no new clues to the cause of the disaster. The safety board will conduct a public inquiry in Gander because of the magnitude of the disaster, but no date has been set, she said.
The Pentagon today began releasing the names of those on the flight’s passenger manifest. Farah Karadsheh of Warren, Mich., a Detroit suburb, said he received notification from Fort Campbell that his son, Sgt. Ibrahim Karadsheh, 25, was listed.
″You won’t believe it, he sent us Christmas gifts and told us not to open them until he opened them for us,″ said Karadsheh, whose son served the Army as an Arabic language specialist.
Relatives of Maj. Troy Carter, 41, an Army chaplain, said he telephoned his wife from Newfoundland to say how much he was looking forward to coming home for Christmas and cut the conversation short because he had to board the flight.
Ms. Beaulieu said 32 representatives of the U.S. military were on hand to observe the Canadian search effort in 25-degree weather at the crash site in sparsely wooded terrain about a half-mile from Gander International Airport. Reporters were kept from the site.
″You can determine a number of things from the positions of the bodies and the wreckage,″ said Dick Pepper, regional public relations director for the Transport Ministry.
Horrified airport employees watched the pre-dawn sky light up when the plane crashed minutes after they had chatted with the U.S. soldiers, heard them singing Christmas carols in the terminal and directed them onto their Arrow Air charter.
″There was a flash, just like a sunburst,″ said Judy Parsons, a car rental agent who witnessed the crash from the Gander parking lot. ″It lasted for just two seconds and then I heard an explosion.″
Cynthia Goodyear, a cashier at the airport’s duty-free shop, said some of the soldiers had bought T-shirts that said, ″I survived Gander, Nfld.″
Canadian Transport Minister Don Mazankowski said the plane climbed no higher than 1,000 feet before crashing. Transport Canada spokesman Bruce Reid, returning from a helicopter tour over the site, said there was no suggestion that the jet exploded in flight.
The crash littered the sparse, hilly landscape near the runway’s end with Christmas gifts, weapons and smouldering debris. A makeshift morgue was erected next to a body of water known as Deadman’s Pond.
The charred cockpit voice and flight recorders were taken to Ottawa for analysis, said Peter Boag of the Canadian Aviation Safety Board, who was directing the investigation.
Because of possible fire damage to the recorders, commonly known as ″black boxes,″ Boag said officials could be facing ″a time-consuming effort to get information from the units.″
Gander airport manager John Pittman and Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sgt. Roger Tinkham said the plane was not de-iced before takeoff, despite having landed a little more than an hour earlier in light freezing rain after a refueling stop in Cologne, West Germany. Pittman later refused to elaborate.
But authorities refused to speculate on the possible cause of the crash.
The White House said preliminary reports showed no indication of sabotage or an in-flight explosion. Today, however, two people claimed responsibility for the crash in telephone calls.
In Beirut, Lebanon, a caller claiming to represent the shadowy terrorist group Islamic Jihad told a Western news agency the jet had been bombed, and said, ″We shoulder the responsibility for the explosion.″
The Italian news agency ANSA reported from Rome today that a caller claimed responsibility for the ″explosion″ on behalf of the ″Organization for the Liberation of Egypt.″
Neither call could be authenticated. The Pentagon dismissed a Thursday claim, also made by an anonymous caller to a news agency in Beirut, that Islamic Jihad was responsible.
Families and friends learned of the tragedy as they assembled for a brass- band welcome at the headquarters of the 101st Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., but carried on with plans for a Christmas concert as a tribute to the dead.
U.S. military authorities said it might take a day or two to notify all the next-of-kin, and as long as a week to positively identify all remains.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Vedder Steed in Atlanta, Ga., said the Miami, Fla.-based charter operator, Arrow Air, was among more than 400 airlines whose operations were the subject of a 1984 FAA probe.
The airline agreed last June to pay a $34,000 fine in connection with a series of enforcement actions, mostly involving poor record-keeping, according to documents released in Washington. None of the problems was considered serious enough to warrant grounding the airline.
President Reagan said he and Mrs. Reagan were shocked and saddened at what U.S. official said was the worst crash in military history.
″Our hearts go out to the loved ones of these brave soldiers who have paid the fullest price in the service of their country and the cause of peace,″ Reagan said in his written statement.
The multinational Sinai force, which has troops from 11 nations and is commanded by Norwegian officers, was created to police the disengagement of Israeli and Egyptian troops under their 1979 peace treaty.
Thursday’s crash, the worst air disaster ever in Canada, adds to this year’s record death toll in commercial aviation, which now stands at 1,948, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal.