MIAMI — Fifteen days after ValuJet Flight 592 plummeted into the Everglades, killing all 110 people aboard, federal investigators Sunday finally recovered the cockpit voice recorder that may offer decisive clues as to the cause of the crash.
Packed in a beverage cooler and immersed in the same water in which it has been hidden since the tragedy on May 11, the second of two so-called black boxes was flown to Washington, D.C., for analysis at the headquarters of the National Transportation Safety Board. The water is used to preserve the environment in which the recorder was found, a standard technique in such cases.
It is hoped that the recorder captured the DC-9 crew's words on tape, indicating what took place during the last minutes of the flight.
The recorder was found by Metro-Dade Police Sgt. Felix Jimenez, who was walking through the marshy crash site searching for human remains and wreckage, according to Mike Benson, a spokesman for the NTSB.
"We want to know what happened in the cockpit, the last moment. We are hopeful that the conversation between the pilots and other sound will give us important clues," Benson said, adding that he did not know the condition of the recorder.
Jimenez said the recorder was underwater and partially submerged in the muck southeast of the crater created by the crash. It was about 100 feet from where the plane's other black box, the flight-data recorder, was found May 13.
"When we stopped for a break, I said, 'God, so far I've just prayed for you to keep everyone safe out here and I haven't asked for your help finding anything. Now I'm asking you to help us find this recorder,' " Jimenez said.
"The next time I put my probe into the water, it hit the recorder," he told the Associated Press.
Jimenez usually works as a homicide detective, but he and dozens of other local police officers have been probing the crash site since the plane went down minutes after taking off from Miami International Airport for Atlanta.
Earlier Sunday, federal investigators held a news briefing to discuss evidence that before the fatal plunge, both the cockpit and the passenger cabin were saturated with "a heavy, dense smoke" from tires burning in the forward cargo hold.
"More soot and smoke evidence from interior cabin pieces" plucked from the crash site suggest that fire was spreading quickly throughout the aircraft, said Gregory A. Feith, the NTSB's chief investigator.
As the stricken jetliner headed for a shattering impact into the marsh, the heat from the fire was so intense, Feith said, that the aluminum supports of at least one passenger seat were turned into "molten metal."
He added: "Whether actually anybody was sitting in that seat, we don't know."
With 35% to 40% of the aircraft wreckage recovered, Feith said, federal investigators have found increasing evidence that a fire, perhaps sparked by one or more of 119 oxygen generators inside the cargo hold, was the probable cause of the crash.
Speculation on the cause of such a fire has centered on the tires being carried as cargo and the oxygen generators, outdated equipment packed by a subcontractor for transport back to ValuJet headquarters in Atlanta. When in use, the generators rely on a volatile mix of chemicals to provide oxygen to passenger emergency masks. When installed inside aircraft cabins, they are surrounded by heat shields.
Feith spoke to reporters in front of a hangar at a small regional airport in south Dade County, where the twisted wreckage of Flight 592 is being examined. Using small pieces of the plane recovered from the marsh, investigators are reassembling the forward cargo hold on a plywood-and-chicken wire frame in order to find the pattern of smoke and fire, which could tell them where the fire began and how it spread.
They also plan to build a cargo hold with oxygen canisters and set it on fire to try to re-create what happened, Feith said.
Feith held up a soot-covered, 18-inch mount from a overhead baggage rack and charred end-caps from two of the oxygen generators to suggest the intensity and range of the fire spreading through the aircraft in its final moments.
"We believe there was heavy, black smoke in the cabin of the airplane," Feith said.
He theorized that the fire "was burning up the sidewalls" of the aircraft and may have affected the airplane's steering cables, which pass through the cargo hold. There was no evidence yet, however, that the cables had been burned, Feith added.
The circumstantial evidence gathered from the shattered wreckage suggests hellish final moments for the 105 passengers and crew of five aboard the plane. "We don't know if we'll ever be able to determine what the passengers were going through in the cabin," Feith said. He added that the voice recorder could supply some answers.