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Families of Airliner Crash Gather At Morgue, “Black Box” Found

December 23, 1995

BUGA, Colombia (AP) _ On a mountain ridge strewn with bodies, rescuers packed victims of an American Airlines crash into bags and found a flight data recorder that may explain the tragedy that killed 160 people.

By early today, helicopters had ferried at least 81 bodies to the town of Buga, where relatives waved snapshots of their loved ones and pleaded to get into a makeshift morgue in a local sports center.

``Let in the grievers!″ shouted Orlando Lozado, whose brother was one of 164 people on the flight Wednesday night from Miami. Four people, all U.S. citizens or residents, survived the crash 40 miles from Cali, Colombia’s second-largest city.

At least 25 bodies had been identified. A morgue sign asked relatives to fill out forms listing physical characteristics of victims: moles, scars, tattoos.

Even though Colombian officials have said terrorism was not suspected in the crash, investigators at the morgue planned to X-ray the bodies for any evidence of a bomb or other terrorist act. That was delaying processing of the bodies, angering some families waiting to claim them.

About a half-dozen bodies were released to families by early today. Among those waiting at the morgue was former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre, whose son, daughter-in-law and grandchild were on the plane.

Some relatives joined Red Cross teams at the crash site in southwestern Colombia, sifting through a sprawl of jagged aircraft parts and personal possessions _ toothbrushes, baby dolls, address books, a diving mask. Torn suitcases and clothing dangled from trees.

Bodies were scattered in the muddy undergrowth, a few still strapped into their seats. Near a pile of corpses, one rescue worker nonchalantly swigged from a whiskey bottle found at the scene. At one point, crews ran out of black body bags.

In Washington, President Clinton offered his condolences to the bereaved families.

``Coming on the eve of the holiday season, this tragic event takes on even greater poignancy,″ Clinton said in a statement. ``Our hopes and prayers, along with those of all Americans, are with those whose lives have been so affected by this tragedy.″

The flight recorder, which indicates the plane’s airspeed, altitude and direction at the time of the crash, could explain why Flight 965 from Miami hit the mountainside short of its Cali destination. An American Airlines investigator hoisted the metal box onto his shoulder and carted it down the hill.

The crash was the deadliest involving a U.S. airliner since a Pan Am flight went down over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988. That crash, blamed on terrorists, killed 270 people.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said at least 48 of the people on the flight were U.S. citizens, but determining the precise number was difficult because many passengers were dual nationals.

Four survivors were at the Hospital Universitario in Cali: Gonzalo Dussan Monroy, and his 6-year-old daughter, Michelle, of Somerville, N.J.; Mercedes Ramirez, of Kansas City, Mo.; and Mauricio Reyes, a business student at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Dussan’s wife and 13-year-old son, also on the flight, were unaccounted for.

A dog _ a small brown mutt _ was found alive inside an animal carrier, an American Airlines investigator said Friday. The dog, believed to have been in the cargo hold of the airplane, was dubbed ``Milagro″ _ ``miracle″ in Spanish.

Investigators from the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were in Colombia to find the cause of the crash.

The jetliner lost radio contact about 9:40 p.m. Wednesday. There was no word of trouble from the cockpit, and no report of bad weather. Alvaro Cala, director of Colombian civil aviation, said the plane was 13 miles east of its intended flight path when it crashed into the mountain.

Cala said there was no evidence of an explosion on the plane and that all ground radar and radio systems were operating normally. He said a probe would take at least six months.

Three years ago, leftist rebels sabotaged the area’s navigation system. However, Alberto Davila, assistant head of Colombia’s civil aviation agency, stressed Friday there was no evidence of terrorism in connection with the crash.

Most of the passengers on the flight apparently were, like Dussan, Colombians headed home for the holidays in Cali.

___

EDITORS: People seeking information about passengers on Flight 965 can call an American Airlines help number at 1-800-245-0999.

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