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Divers Recover 'Black Box' From ValuJet 592 Wreckage

By Eric Malnic
Los Angeles Times
MIAMI

A sharpshooter watching for alligators guarded divers in a steamy Everglades marsh on Monday as they recovered fragmented human remains and a "black box" recording device from the wreckage of ValuJet flight 592.

"This is tough stuff out there," said National Transportation Safety Board vice-chairman Robert Francis, who is heading up the investigation of the crash that killed all 109 aboard the DC-9 jetliner Saturday afternoon.

The flight data recorder found in the marsh Monday afternoon could provide important clues why Flight 592 crashed.

If it is not severely damaged, the device should provide a readout of important technical aspects of the last few minutes of flight, including the plane's heading, altitude and air speed. Investigators said there is a slight chance that the device found was a spare that was not actually operating before the crash.

Divers are still searching for Flight 592's other black box, which records the last few minutes of pilot conversations and other sounds in the cockpit.

In Washington, President Clinton ordered Transportation Secretary Federico Pea to report to him "this week on additional measures the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration can take to ensure that all our airlines continue to operate at the highest level of safety."

White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said Pea will look to see if he can bring on more FAA inspectors promptly to check aircraft and flight procedures. The agency has hired 230 inspectors this year and the administration has requested funds for 150 more for next fiscal year, starting October 1, McCurry said.

Although the U.S. air travel system with 1.5 million passengers a day is the world's safest, "no one should ever be satisfied completely with the quality of our protections for air travel," McCurry said.

On Sunday, the FAA announced that it will intensify a review of ValuJet's safety and maintenance, extending a 7-day examination into a month.

Lewis Jordan, who founded ValuJet in 1993 as a low-price airline, said Monday his company "would never cut a corner on safety. We pay the highest degree of attention to it at all times."

Officials said it could be days - and perhaps weeks - before all the human remains and bits of wreckage are recovered from the marsh.

At least 40 body parts had been recovered and transferred to the Dade County Medical Examiner's office by midday Monday.

Medical Examiner Joseph Davis said that the tissues have been decomposing rapidly in the warm water, and although DNA experts will be brought in to help the pathologists, some of the remains may never be identified.

Under a broiling South Florida sun, 30 police divers dressed in heavy biohazard protective suits and masks slogged, crawled and swam through the rotting vegetation, oozing mud and murky water at the crash site Monday, using touch more than sight to locate and recover whatever they could find from Flight 592.

Francis said that because of humid temperatures that soared close to 90 degrees, the divers were limited to 30-minute shifts, resting for at least an hour before returning to their grim tasks.

"This is not easy for them," Francis said. "But this is their work. These people are professionals."

Francis said a "sniper" armed with "an automatic weapon" was on the lookout for alligators, snakes and other potentially threatening wildlife, but local environmentalists played down the danger, saying there was little likelihood of attack.

The largest pieces of debris located so far are the plane's twin engines and an 8-foot-long chunk of the airframe. Like the rest of the debris, they lie beneath layers of water and muck, resting atop the bed of submerged limestone that serves as the base of the Everglades.

Several plans - building a bridge to a road 300 yards away, erecting dikes and draining the marsh around the crash site, towing in large cranes mounted on barges - have been suggested for speeding the retrieval process, but officials say there are flaws in all of the proposals.

Naturalists say a bridge could further damage the fragile Everglades ecology. Hydrologists say water might seep in under any dikes placed on the porous limestone. Investigators said cranes could further mangle the wreckage, destroying important clues as to why Flight 592 crashed.