One day after military restrictions were lifted on access to the site of a mystery jet crash, believed to be of a stealth fighter, a television reporting crew recovered small scraps of metal and plastic that apparently are part of the wreckage.
It was not clear Monday how significant the discovery might be. However, military officials said they do not believe that pieces that may still be at the site pose any risk of compromising national security.
After the July 11 crash in Sequoia National Forest, the Air Force declared the site and the airspace above it a "national security area," out of bounds to the press and public. Military officials have confirmed that the pilot was killed, but they have declined to identify the type of aircraft, the base from which it took off, its destination or its mission.
On Friday, a reporter and cameraman from KERO-TV Channel 23 in Bakersfield visited the site with an earth scientist and helicopter pilot, and in the space of about 20 minutes, each of the men gathered about a handful of apparent wreckage fragments.
"We were surprised--all of us--that there was so much material around," reporter Karl Schweitzer said. Each of the four men in his group used a plastic bag to gather up pieces, "like finding seashells on the beach," Schweitzer said.
"If the Air Force can lift the (restricted) designation and say it's all right for people to enter the area, I would hope that whatever they left behind is of no significance," he added.
The CBS affiliate reported its discovery in Friday newscasts. The helicopter pilot who took the crew to the site turned over some of the parts to the FBI on Saturday, and the rest were turned over to the Air Force Monday afternoon.
"If there was concern (about national security), they would obviously go back into the area again, which they are not planning on doing, to my knowledge," said Lt. Col. Jerry F. Guess, Edwards Air Force Base public relations director.
Guess said he went to KERO-TV on Monday to pick up the materials, because the reporters "found a small handful of parts" at the site and the accident investigation team wanted to examine them.
Air Force investigators who examined the crash site, 15 miles northeast of Bakersfield, "cleaned the area as thoroughly as they could," Guess said.
"They may have overlooked a few pieces . . . or there may have been some pieces lying around they thought were insignificant to the investigation," he said.
Congressional sources in Washington have said the downed craft was apparently an F-19 stealth fighter built by Lockheed, incorporating the latest electronic technology and aerodynamic design intended to make detection by radar and infrared devices difficult, if not impossible.
Restrictions on access to the site were lifted Thursday afternoon, and a press conference attended by Bakersfield-area reporters was held more than one mile from the site, but no reporters visited the site that day.
Friday morning, KERO-TV reporter Schweitzer flew in by helicopter with a cameraman and an earth scientist equipped with radiation detection equipment. They found no radiation but discovered scraps of what appeared to be wreckage from the plane scattered around the site, which was marked by a U.S. flag in memory of the dead pilot.
The pilot of the ill-fated aircraft has been identified as Air Force Maj. Ross E. Mulhare, 35, of River Edge, N.J. He was based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
Schweitzer said they found pieces of plastic, pieces of what appeared to be circuit boards and pieces of metal, including flat pieces, twisted pieces and "a piece of shiny metal shaped like a nozzle." Some pieces were painted green; others were white.
Schweitzer estimated that the total material gathered by the four men in about 20 minutes comprised two double-handfuls of parts, most no more than one inch in size, the largest about 2 1/2 inches by 1 inch. One piece, about the size of a thumbnail, had printed on it the words "Minox" and "Made in France," Schweitzer said.
He said that he did not know how much remained at the site but the reporting team "probably got the majority of good stuff on the surface in this one area."
David Richards, the helicopter pilot who flew in the news team to the site, estimated that at a maximum, "a bushel basketful" of wreckage scraps might remain there. He said pieces he saw included what appeared to be stainless steel nuts and tubing, chunks of lightweight but durable metal and composite materials.
Richards said that after he was contacted Saturday by someone identifying himself as with the Air Force, he telephoned the FBI and turned over the materials he had gathered to that agency.
"I didn't want to inadvertently turn it over to any foreign agents," Richards said. "I wanted to be safe. Another thing is I trust the FBI. . . ."