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Feds rule out sabotage in N.Y. crash

A large section of the tailpiece of American Airlines Flight 587 is lifted off a boat by a crane after the Airbus A300 crashed in Queens, New York.
A large section of the tailpiece of American Airlines Flight 587 is lifted off a boat by a crane after the Airbus A300 crashed in Queens, New York.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sabotage, engine failure and weather conditions have been ruled out in the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 into a crowded New York neighborhood, federal authorities said Tuesday.

But investigators were still trying to determine what caused the tail of the Airbus A300 to snap off.

The plane slammed into the Queens neighborhood of Belle Harbor on November 12, 2001, shortly after takeoff from Kennedy International Airport bound for the Dominican Republic. The crash killed all 260 people on board and five people on the ground.

"Our nation was still stunned by the events of September 11 when this crash occurred. ... [The] possibility [of terror] could not be discounted," Carol Carmody, acting head of the National Transportation and Safety Board said at a public hearing.

"There is no indication to date of any criminal activity associated with the crash," she said.

In his investigation summary at Tuesday's hearing, lead NTSB investigator Robert Benzon said sabotage, weather conditions, air traffic control misdirections, engine failure or malfunction, unauthorized aircraft parts, and stabilizer anomalies had been ruled out as causing the crash.

He said investigators believe the plane encountered turbulence from the wakes of two other aircraft before the Airbus' vertical stabilizer broke off.

Benzon said that extensive calculations revealed "the physical loads that the vertical stabilizer experienced were significantly above the ultimate maximum limits required by French and American certification standards." Airbus is a French-made aircraft.

The airplane's vertical stabilizer and rudder were found in Jamaica Bay about one mile from the main wreckage, he said.

NTSB investigators believe rudder movement put the extra load on the stabilizer, Benzon said, but it was not yet known if that movement was caused by pilot's actions or by a problem with the rudders.

Benzon said the preliminary findings prompted his team to recommend that the FAA train pilots to make sure that they know that light pressure on rudder pedals can cause stress on the tail section of Airbus A300s.

Security cameras at New York's Triborough Bridge captured most of the accident sequence, showing a light-colored smear or smudge that could be misting fuel, smoke or fire after the engines broke away from airplane, he said.

A computer simulation shown during Tuesday's hearing, combining the video and the printed text of the "black box" recording, indicated the plane encountered turbulence in the wake of two other flights twice during the initial ascent.

Several thumps and a loud bang could be heard after the second wake encounter, followed by a roaring noise.

Before the recording ends, the first officer could be heard saying, "What the hell are we into -- we're stuck in it."

"Get out of it, get out of it," the captain responded.

It has been determined the Airbus and the two other planes were spaced within FAA guidelines, Benzon said.

"We will not render a determination of cause at these proceedings," said Carmody, who is chairing the hearing, which is scheduled to last four or five days.

She said the hearing's purpose was twofold: Assist the safety board in developing additional factual information to determine the cause of the accident and to let the aviation community and the traveling public see part of the investigative process.

According to the NTSB Web site, the hearing will examine design and certification standards for the vertical stabilizer and rudder; continuing airworthiness inspection procedures; airplane manufacturers' rudder system design philosophies; pilot training; and the potential role of wake turbulence in the accident sequence.

Besides NTSB, present at the hearing were representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration, American Airlines, Airbus North America, Allied Pilots Association, and relatives of some of the crash victims.

The crash of Flight 587 ranks as one of the deadliest in U.S. history. The worst was American Airlines Flight 191, which crashed shortly after takeoff from Chicago's O'Hare Airport on May 25, 1979, killing all 273 on board and three on the ground.

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