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Breaking News

Alaska Airlines Flight 261: MD-80 Jetliner Crashes Off the Coast of Point Mugu with 88 People on Board

Aired January 31, 2000 - 11:35 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JIM MORET, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to CNN's continuous coverage of the crash of Alaska Airlines flight 261, a jetliner which crashed at approximately 4:36 Pacific time today about 20 miles off the coast of Point Mugu, which is just north of Los Angeles. It was an MD-80 jetliner, specifically an MD-83 of that variety. According to Alaska Airlines, holding 88 people on board, 83 of them passengers, five crew members, including a pilot and co-pilot.

You're seeing photos of the plane, the actual plane, taken by freelance photographer Vince J. LaMonica back in 1997, three photographs which CNN has exclusive use of. And while we look at those photos, let's check in with CNN's Charles Feldman, who's a correspondent here in Los Angeles, also a licensed private pilot.

Charles, as we look at the search area, and it's been described as a rather large search area, describe what it's like to fly in and around the Los Angeles area and specifically this crash location.

CHARLES FELDMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, the area -- the airspace in and around and certainly over Los Angeles is some of the most congested airspace anywhere in the world. You've got traffic coming in and out of Los Angeles International Airport. In a very small space of geography, you'll also have to the south San Diego International, to the northwest you have Santa Barbara Airport. There are a number of small municipal airports that accommodate light or private aircraft and business aircraft.

There's also, right at Point Mugu, which is the area near which the aircraft went down, there is a very large naval air station with a lot of military traffic going in and out.

So it is a very congested airspace, it's an airspace that is kept under very tight control by a number of different air traffic control agencies. There are some that take care of the aircraft at higher altitudes and then other agencies, or other divisions of the ATC system, that handle the aircraft as they come lower down and in and out of those various airports.

But, you know, between the private aircraft and the business traffic and commercial traffic, you would be hard pressed to find any other part of the world that has as crowded an airspace.

MORET: According to Jack Evans, the spokesperson for Alaska Airlines, the pilot radioed with problems with the stabilizer trim. Carl Rochelle explained in some detail what the stabilizer trim does. Give us another viewpoint of the significance of this radio call.

FELDMAN: Well, the significance is for a couple of things. I mean, one of the things that you know, as I mentioned, I think, earlier, is the mere fact that the pilot had an opportunity to radio for help or to indicate that there was a problem and that he needed help, right away can rule out such things as a terrorist attack or a hijacking, that sort of thing, where there's no communication, and therefore the cause of the accident is a total mystery.

Here there's certainly a lot of mystery, but because the pilot had the luxury of time, at least at the onset of the problem, to indicate that there was a mechanical malfunction and that therefore he wanted to divert to Los Angeles International Airport as opposed to continuing on to his first stop, which would have been San Francisco, right away tells you that whatever developed, while it happened obviously quickly, gave the flight crew at least enough time to try to evaluate what the problem was and to try to, you know, to send out a distress call.

And the fact that they identified a stabilizer trim as being part of the problem -- well, you know, it's hard to say at this point whether that was the problem or whether it was a symptom of the problem. As you know, you know, sort of like when you get sick, you know, the sore throat isn't necessarily the disease you have, it's a symptom of the disease. And much is the same with aircraft accidents.

Sometimes the thing that the flight crew or others think is the problem is really a symptom of a larger one, and that's what the black boxes, if they're located and if they're intact, might help to determine, as well as a further analysis of whatever conversations took place in detail between air traffic control and that aircraft.

MORET: Charles, as we're looking at these pictures, we're mindful that these were pictures taken earlier of the initial search and rescue effort, and the Coast Guard is apt to say it is still considered a search and rescue effort. Obviously the effort continues, but it is made more difficult by the fact that it is night.

FELDMAN: Yes, and, you know, nighttime search and rescue operations over land are hard enough, and when you're talking about the Pacific Ocean,the problems are just magnified significantly. The water this time of year is on the chilly side in that part of the coastal area off of Southern California.

At the time of the crash, there were surface winds, I think, gusting to 20 knots, which, as I'm sure you know, is a pretty gusty wind. It's not at all a tranquil situation, so you're going to have some swells and whitecaps. And in fact, looking at those earlier images, some of those waves are being caused by the vortex created by that helicopter that you see there, but a lot of those ripples are also caused by the 15- to 20-knot wind gusts in that area.

MORET: CNN's Charles Feldman, thank you for your time. The NTSB, which will launch a go team in the next couple of hours, en route to the crash site, will make its command center in Oxnard, California, which is just a few miles on the coast inland from the crash location, which we were told was approximately 20 miles off the coast, northwest of Los Angeles.

Recapping, Alaska Airlines flight 261 crashed today. According to Alaska Airlines they lost contact, radio contact, with the plane at 4:36 P.M. Pacific time. Eighty-eight people were on board, 83 of them passengers, five crew, including the pilot and co-pilot. The plane has been identified as an MD-83, which is a variation of an MD-80. It's been in service since 1992. You're looking at some exclusive photographs taken by Vince LaMonica, a freelance photographer, in 1997.

Again, the pilot radioed en route from Puerto Vallarta to its first stop, San Francisco. They were experiencing problems with the stabilizer trim. CNN's Charles Feldman and Carl Rochelle, both of them licensed pilots, indicate that could affect the maneuverability and controllability of the aircraft. However, this is still early on in the investigation, very preliminary information coming in, and clearly the NTSB has much work to do.

Let's go now to Catherine Callaway in Atlanta.

CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: CNN's Greg LeFevre is at the airport in San Francisco, where family and friends of the passengers and crew, some of them, have gathered there. And Greg, we had to interrupt your report earlier for a news conference. Tell us again what the situation is there and what Alaska Airlines has done for the friends and family.

GREG LEFEVRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The airline has established CARE teams that will fan out across the West, all along the route where any of the passengers on this plane may have been destined.

As we know that plane was due to land here in San Francisco late in the afternoon, and so a CARE team is being dispatched here to San Francisco Airport, but also to Seattle, where the end of that flight was going to be, and on to other cities, because the airline believes that there were passengers on this plane who may have been connecting either in San Francisco or in Seattle to other locations.

And so the airport -- or the airline then has to match teams to those different locations and see what it can do to assist the families there.

At the same time, the airport itself here, the officials at San Francisco Airport, have their own clergy on call, as they say. And they have assembled some of those folks, and we have seen the clergy here escorted across the airport. And there are also mental health CARE teams from San Francisco General Hospital, which is the local trauma center here, who are also being assembled here.

We understand that very early on, four people sought assistance, or refuge, if you will, at a special room set up by Alaska Airlines here at the international terminal at San Francisco Airport.

Catherine?

CALLAWAY: Greg, how quickly did Alaska Airlines respond to the need there of the family and friends?

LEFEVRE: We understand that the response was almost immediate. When a plane goes down, when there is an accident like this, the destination station is one of the first alerted, we are told, and when that happens, the airline, as it did here, pages persons waiting for that flight. So there would be an alert that goes to the arrivals gate, and then also in this case, to the customs area.

Now, people did not meet this flight at the gate necessarily, because passengers here were coming in from another country, and so on their first landing at San Francisco International, they would go through customs, and only after passing through customs would those passengers be met.

And so there is a -- there's one common area here at San Francisco International where pass -- where folks greet passengers coming in from outside the country. It's at the lower level in the center terminal. People who've been traveling through SFO are familiar with that. It is not a large area, it's only about 100 or 150 feet wide and maybe about 70 feet deep, so it's usually quite congested.

There -- folks as we arrived this afternoon were mon -- watching the aircraft -- the airline monitors indicating which planes were coming in and which were not. And very early on, after the plane was discovered missing, the flight 261 was taken off the monitors, and then periodic pages were announced over the public address system to alert folks waiting for this airline.

Also, Catherine, it's worthy of note that the airline also, and the airport, dispatched individuals, airport employees, into the crowd to ask folks if they were waiting for this air -- this flight. So it wasn't just waiting for people to respond to the page. They actually went into the crowd and asked around if folks were awaiting this flight.

And as I indicated, there were apparently four people who chose to respond to those pages.

CALLAWAY: Certainly a delicate situation for the airline.

What do you know is being done for those in Seattle and waiting in Los Angeles, perhaps?

LEFEVRE: We understand here from the Seattle station -- or, I'm sorry, from the Alaska Airlines station manager here in San Francisco, that similar CARE teams, as Alaska calls them, are being set up in Seattle and at the other cities.

CALLAWAY: All right. Greg LeFevre, joining us by phone from the airport in San Francisco. Thank you, Greg. We'll take a break now. We will continue our coverage of the crash of Alaska Airlines flight 261. And we leave you with this live shot from our affiliate, KTTV.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MORET: Continuing our coverage of aircraft -- air -- flight 261, Alaska Airlines, which crashed off the coast of Los Angeles approximately 4:30 this afternoon, according to the Associated Press, a National Park Service ranger witnessed the plane crash and said that it dived nose first into the Pacific Ocean, this according to a spokesperson for the Park Service.

Carl Rochelle, our analyst, our reporter, who's also a flight instructor in Washington, when you hear eyewitness reports, and -- about diving nose first into the Pacific Ocean, talk about your experience with noticing the attitude of a plane and how it may not even be accurate.

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, that is -- you know, it's one of the things that comes to you early when you fly airplanes. Airplanes fly in three dimensions. People don't think in three dimensions normally. It's -- that third dimension is -- your feet are always on the floor. The wheels of the car are always on the ground. But when that third dimension is up in the air, things don't always look -- are not always how they seem to be.

And I have to say, first time I saw an airplane from a different perspective out here landing at an airport, I looked over and said, Oh, my gosh, he's going to miss the airport entirely. But when I got a little further around, I realized that he was dead on course. It just looked that way.

So people who look at things in the air, you know, it may be absolutely correct, but it may not be, and so many times in the past, the National Transportation Safety Board has had eyewitnesses to an accident, several of them, and take 10 witnesses and get 10 different stories, and even sometimes from experienced observers, experienced pilots, who believe they saw one thing, and it doesn't turn out to be exactly what they saw.

So this could be right, this could be wrong. Certainly that's what he thought he saw, it coming in at a particular angle, but it depends on where this person was in relation to where the airplane was that determines exactly how what he saw actually happened. And it can be sort of strange.

MORET: Carl, the NTSB is in charge of the investigation. But with respect to the search and rescue efforts, that's being handled by the U.S. Coast Guard. Captain George Wright some time ago at a news conference said they are actively searching for survivors. Of the 88 people on board, 83 were passengers, five were crew. Two bodies have been recovered so far, no survivors so far. But the Coast Guard is pointing out emphatically, they are calling this a search and rescue effort. ROCHELLE: Absolutely, and they will continue to do that, my guess would be, for at least a couple of days. As long as it is described as a search and rescue effort, then the priority is on finding survivors, not on accepting that everyone is dead, but that they are now in active search for anyone who survived the aircraft. And they will keep on as long as they believe that there is a possibility that anyone may have survived it.

And there are stories of people surviving airplane crashes two days or three days or more, even though water temperature, we are told, in the area is 58 degrees, and you can get hypothermia. There are cases where people survive. There are life rafts on board the aircraft, or life preservers of the sort under the seats, and perhaps even lifeboats on board, the inflatable kind, of course, that someone could have wound up in.

So they will continue to do that, and they have the priority as long as it is a search and rescue operation. At some point, they will determine that it is no longer search and rescue, that there are -- there is no possibility of any more survivors in that area of the crash, and then it will turn into a search and recovery operation. And that is when the focus shifts to the National Transportation Safety Board, which, of course, is in charge of the investigation all along.

What the Coast Guard is in charge of is that search and rescue mission. That is their job. The National Transportation Safety Board's job, by mandate of Congress, is to investigate the accident. And they'll continue the investigation, but the priority will be put on recovering survivors.

Now, when it shifts -- you know, in addition to recovering the survivors, of course, they're also keeping an eye out for those black boxes. And they are incredibly important in an accident like this. (inaudible)...

MORET: Carl, talk about the -- Carl, would you talk about the flight data recorder and voice recorder? Let's take a shot of some of the debris being brought up to the shore here. And Carl, focus, if you will, on the data and voice recorder. Because you talk about, obviously, the first priority being to find survivors. Is there a secondary and equally important investigation looking for those recorders?

ROCHELLE: They are looking for the recorders. But right now, actually, the first priority is survivors, and the black boxes, the flight data recording and cockpit voice recorder do take a back seat to that. One of the reasons why is, they have devices on them called pingers that are activated by contact with the salt water. And they will ping. But they have to get devices into place to actually listen to those.

And it has been recent enough, the Egypt Air crash, if you recall, people discovered the location of the black boxes with a hand- held pinger that they put over the side. They were able to hear that, and we were too, and they played some tape for us of the sounds of listening for that, a click-click-click sound, where they discovered it.

And they will begin to actively look for that. But that's dependent on the number of personnel. All the personnel that they have right now in that looking for survivor mode. But if they come across the flight data recorder, the cockpit voice recorder, which are stowed in the aft section of the aircraft, back where the tail end of the aircraft is, is where they will be.

Now, why are they important? The flight data recorder gives you information about what the mechanical part of the airplane was doing. Now, we don't know how many parameters it has, and parameters is just a fancy word for the number of different elements that it recorded. For instance, it records the air speed of the aircraft, the heading of the aircraft, whether it was going up or down, or what speed it was going up or down, the engines, how much power they were developing. And it can go on to give you some very esoteric ideas about whether one flap was up and one flap was down, all of this information like that, that will be part of the factor.

The cockpit voice recorder will capture the sounds of the pilot and the co-pilot talking to each other and trying to deal with whatever the problem was. This is in addition to any conversations that the crew may have had with air traffic controllers. It will hear them, for instance, discussing the problem that they had with the trim on -- the horizontal stabilizer trim, or the stabilizer trim, and what they were trying to do about it. All of that information will be on there. It is invaluable in determining what caused the crash.

And, of course, one of the real priorities -- everyone is sorry for the loss of life, but it is very important to find out what caused this airplane to go down, to discover if there is an inherent problem that has developed, so that it can be fixed to determine that another crash doesn't happen for the same reason. That's one of the real priorities in finding out why an airplane went down, is to find out what broke, what went wrong, so they can fix it, so it doesn't happen again, Jim.

MORET: Carl, as we look at pictures of what appears to be debris that has been recovered from the scene, do the size and shape and so forth of the debris, as well as the field in which they're scattered, do they all tell investigators something?

ROCHELLE: Absolutely. In fact, if this was an accident on land, they would secure the area even more so than you see, criminal investigation securing the scene of the crime on TV. It's even more significant in the National Transportation Safety Board investigation. They don't just tag and bag something, they want it to stay exactly where it landed, because they can determine to some extent by the way a piece of debris falls, the way it's leaning, how it left the aircraft, in other words, if it broke apart, whether it shifted, whether it was a force pushing it away, or whether it fell that way.

They look -- for instance, if you find a piece of -- one piece of the airplane, say a part of the tail feathers (ph) in one area and a wing two or three miles away, it tells them that the airplane may have broken up in flight, because it's sort of spread over a wide area. So very important how the debris came down, very important where it is.

Now, there is something that you have to deal with when an airplane goes down at sea, and that is the effect of the tides, the wave action pushing back and forth, the wind action. Wind will push parts of the aircraft that are on the surface. The wave action will push parts that are below the surface.

There is a current running on the bottom, one or two knots, doesn't seem like a whole lot, but it can shift pieces of wreckage around, and that's a consideration in this, and one of the things that the Coast Guard will help establish. And also the National Transportation Safety Board, when they'll talk about the field of debris and where it is and where it's likely to drift in the process of looking into this investigation, all very important factors, Jim.

MORET: Thank you. CNN's Carl Rochelle reporting live from Washington.

Recapping, Alaska Airlines flight 261 bound from Puerto Vallerta to San Francisco crashed off the coast of Los Angeles approximately 20 miles northwest of Los Angeles International Airport. Radio contact was lost at 4:36 P.M. Pacific time. Eighty-eight people on board, 83 of them passengers, five crew, including the pilot. U.S. Coast Guard is conducting a search and rescue effort. The NTSB is en route to the area to begin a formal investigation.

Now back to Catherine Callaway in Atlanta.

CALLAWAY: And we'd like to thank all of our affiliates for their help in our coverage tonight.

We will take a break, and we will continue with our live coverage in just a moment.

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