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Colombian, Airline Officials Differ Over Cause of Plane Crash

January 4, 1996

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Colombian forensic tests found alcohol in the remains of the captain of an American Airlines plane that crashed into a mountain last month, killing 160 people, the U.S. airline said Wednesday.

It remained unclear whether the captain had consumed the alcohol or whether it was the result of ``chemical processes following death by blunt trauma,″ the airline’s executive vice-president of operation, Bob Baker, said a statement.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which notified the airline of the test results, was planning its own forensic tests, said the statement from American’s offices in Fort Worth, Texas.

The amount of alcohol found in the body of 57-year-old Nicholas Tafuri, a pilot with the airline since 1969, was not immediately available.

In the United States, the maximum blood-alcohol content allowed for commercial pilots is .04 percent, compared with .10 for drivers in most states. U.S. aviation regulations prohibit pilots from drinking alcohol within eight hours of flying.

Also Wednesday, the Miami Herald quoted two veteran American Airlines pilots as saying that an air traffic controller who didn’t know the location of the Boeing 757 misled the crew prior to the Dec. 20 crash. The pilots criticized an earlier report by Colombian officials that blamed pilot error for the disaster.

The pilots, who spoke on condition of anonymity, made their statements after reviewing a transcript of the flight’s pilot-to-ground conversations, the newspaper reported. The plane was heading down a valley toward the southwest city of Cali when it veered off course and slammed into the mountainside.

But Carlos Rubio, head of civil aviation in Cali, dismissed the pilots’ comments as ``speculation.″ He said an investigation in Washington of the ``black box″ flight recorders will determine the cause.

The preliminary report by Colombian officials said the crew members were chatting about their jobs shortly before the crash. It also said cockpit recordings gave no indication that the crew had gone through a routine checklist before descending toward Cali.

Lawsuits seeking $1 billion were filed Wednesday on behalf of three crash victims. One suit asks for $500 million for the deaths of Benjamin and Mercedes Ramirez, of Kansas City, Mo. Another seeks $500 million for injuries to Mercedes Liliana Ramirez, their 21-year-old daughter. The three were on their way to visit relatives in Colombia.

Lawyer Howard E. Shafran, who filed both lawsuits, said suits filed across the country would eventually be consolidated in one city for a trial on liability, before being returned to the courts where they were filed.

``These people did not die of the injuries sustained in the crash. They died of hypothermia. These people had a slow, horrible, agonizing death,″ he said.

A U.S. investigation into the cause of the crash and the deaths is ongoing, and results are not expected for months.

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