Picking through heaps of charred metal, rescue workers Sunday finished recovering the bodies of all 33 people killed in Friday's collision of a USAir jetliner and a SkyWest commuter plane, while investigators pieced together the sequence of events that led to the fiery crash.
The collision at Los Angeles International Airport occurred when an air traffic controller gave permission to the jetliner, with 89 people aboard, to land on the same runway where she had just directed the commuter plane to await takeoff, federal investigators say.
In new details released Sunday night, the investigators said that a ground radar system was not operating properly and that four light posts may have blocked the controller's view of the spot where the commuter plane sat on the runway.
"One of these structures was dead in the middle of the intersection," said one federal investigator.
All 12 people aboard the commuter were killed instantly when it was rear-ended and crushed by the jetliner, and 21 occupants of the USAir flight also died, airline officials and investigators said. Twenty-five people were treated at seven area hospitals for injuries ranging from burns to broken bones.
On Sunday, 27 bodies were recovered in a slow, tedious search through the wreckage. Twenty bodies came from the USAir flight--19 passengers and a flight attendant--and seven bodies were recovered from the commuter plane. On Friday, the bodies of five people who apparently had been hurled from the commuter were recovered from the Tarmac, and on Saturday the body of the USAir pilot was removed from the cockpit.
Throughout the day Sunday, emergency crews using a crane and non-sparking cutting tools dissected the twisted metal to clear the way for Los Angeles County coroner's officials to find and document bodies, their personal belongings and other means of identification like jewelry or purses.
"It was devastating to see the destruction, particularly the plane underneath," said Ilona Lewis, chief deputy coroner supervising the body removal. The wreckage represented "one big mangled mess," she said.
Many of the bodies were found in rows 15 through 17, apparently trying to reach exits in the rear of the USAir fuselage, according to Jim Burnett, an official with the National Transportation Safety Board, which is in charge of the investigation.
The coroner's office, which has been inundated with telephone calls during the last two days from frantic relatives, warned it will take weeks to identify the bodies, many of which were burned beyond recognition.
"This latest five (recovered Sunday afternoon) were severely charred," coroner's spokesman Bob Dambacher said.
By Sunday, medical examiners had received or were about to receive dental X-rays and other records for 95% of the victims, Dambacher said.
The recovery of the bodies had been delayed while crews awaited delivery of a crane and while several thousand pounds of potentially explosive jet fuel was drained from the jetliner.
The bustle of LAX terminals was normal Sunday--the crash did not seem to be a topic of many discussions, and the wreckage could not be seen from any passenger waiting area.
But flight delays of up to two hours were reported Sunday because the northern runways, where the crash took place, were closed. Tom Winfrey, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Airports, said the runways would have to be cleaned up before they can be reopened. In the meantime, airliners were being diverted to runways on the south side of LAX.
"It has diminished our capacity pretty significantly," Winfrey said. He said travelers planning to use LAX should check with their airlines for possible flight delays.
While the crash may not have been on the minds of travelers, residents at an apartment building near the airport sat on their balconies with binoculars and long-angle camera lenses to watch investigators examine debris from the wreckage.
Wearing white face masks, rescue workers in orange, blue and yellow uniforms stood at the top of two passenger loading ramps, tossing charred pieces of rubble onto a conveyor belt.
Occasionally, a white sheet, apparently covering a body, could be seen moving down the belt toward waiting coroner vans.
A pickup truck hauled away a portion of the jet's nose cone on Sunday; Saturday night, the 75-foot truck-mounted crane lifted the tail of the USAir jetliner to expose the interior. The tail and other chunks of the plane's fuselage were taken to a nearby hangar.
Meanwhile, the investigation into the cause of the crash continued. Federal authorities who listened to the tape recorded conversations between the air traffic control tower and the two crews determined that a controller had allowed the jetliner to land on runway 24-Left one minute and 12 seconds after she had placed the commuter plane on the same landing strip.
The tape recordings suggest the controller was confused and harried, said Burnett of the NTSB.