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'Wake turbulence' probed in crash of Flight 587

The New York Fire Department dispatched 44 fire trucks and 200 firefighters to the scene of the plane crash in Queens.
The New York Fire Department dispatched 44 fire trucks and 200 firefighters to the scene of the plane crash in Queens.  

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Federal investigators said they are considering whether "wake turbulence" from another airplane may have played a role in the crash of a commercial jet that crashed Monday, scattering debris over a Queens neighborhood and claiming more than 260 lives.

The turbulence from a plane that took off shortly before American Airlines flight 587 could have been a factor in the crash, investigators said Tuesday.

At least 262 people died when the aircraft went down while en route from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

According to the jet's cockpit voice recorder, recovered from the crash site in Rockaway, a rattle emanates from the plane's mainframe before the jet is in the air two minutes, said National Transportation Safety Board Member George Black. Ten seconds later - when flight 587 has been aloft 114 seconds -- the pilot is heard commenting on encountering a "wake effect." The wake was from a Japan Airways Boeing 747 that had taken off minutes earlier, Black said.

Then, the recorder transmits the sound of a second rattle. At 127 seconds, there are comments suggesting loss of control in the aircraft, Black said.

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The recording ends 17 seconds later -- just 37 seconds after the first rattle was heard and less than 2 1/2 minutes after the plane began its takeoff.

Federal Aviation Administration regulations require planes to maintain four nautical miles, or two minutes, of separation at takeoff.

Early indications show flight 587 complied with the required distance, but NTSB investigators said they plan to closer at the wake effect.

The NTSB believes wake turbulence was the initiating event in the 1994 crash of USAir Flight 427 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that killed 132 people. Tests conducted after that crash showed turbulence from another jet can disrupt a trailing plane.

Black said the two recovered engines from flight 587 -- one that landed on the lot of a gas station, the other crushing a boat in a driveway -- were sent to another location to be checked.

Preliminary inspections of the engines, he said, shows that no foreign objects, such as a bird, flew into the engines, causing them to fail.

The French-made Airbus A300-600 broke apart showering flames and debris on an unsuspecting neighborhood that had lost 60 people -- many of them police and firefighters -- in the terrorist attacks two months ago at the World Trade Center's twin towers in Manhattan.

Federal officials said they have found no evidence that terrorism was involved in Monday's crash, and investigators focused on an accidental cause.

All 251 passengers -- including five infants -- and nine crew members aboard the aircraft perished. Mayor Rudy Giuliani said 262 bodies have been recovered, and five people have been reported missing from the community.

NTSB chief Marion C. Blakey said authorities are working to identify the remains.

Among the dead was a sailor headed to the Dominican Republic to see his wife and children after returning Saturday to Norfolk, Virginia, from war duty in the Arabian Sea aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.

The flight data recorder was sent to Washington for analysis.

Black said further scrutiny of the cockpit voice recorder may reveal more clues as to what caused the crash.

"Not only are words important on a tape but sounds are important," Black said. "Quite often spectral analysis of noises or other sorts of clunks and clinks can be identified by members of the cockpit voice recording group."

Relatives of the crash's victims mourned at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, the same center where relatives of the terrorist attacks' victims had mourned. In some cases, entire families were lost among the passengers of flight 587, who were mostly Dominicans.

"We're going to help the people of Rockaway," said Giuliani. "They deserve it. They're very strong and good people. We're going to help the Dominican community. It's one of our strong and most important communities in the city. We're all going to pull together and we're going to be even stronger."

Giuliani noted that he had attended at least 10 funerals in Rockaway for firefighters killed at the World Trade Center, and said that many of the neighborhood's residents were either firefighters or police officers.

"These people know how to fight fires and arrest criminals," the mayor said.

The jet's vertical stabilizer and rudder were recovered from Jamaica Bay, and most of the fuselage slammed into six homes. A total of 12 homes suffered damage, including four homes that were destroyed.

Investigators said they were interested in looking at radar data from area airports that were tracking flight 587 as it took off. Such information could show the sequence in which the jet broke apart, offering revealing clues to what happened when the plane fell from the sky, Black said.

Blakey said the FBI would be contacted immediately if investigators uncover any evidence of criminal activity involved in the crash. She said she has been in close touch with FBI Director Robert Mueller since the crash early Monday.

Flight 587 took off from Kennedy airport at 9:13 a.m. EST and disappeared from radar after reaching an altitude of about 2,800 feet. The flight had been scheduled to leave at 8:40 a.m., but was delayed as routine checks were performed, officials said.


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