PEGGY'S COVE, Canada — Search teams recovered debris and the first 60 bodies from the crash site of a Swissair jetliner just off the coast here Thursday as air safety officials began their investigation into why the plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 229 people on board.
Swissair Flight 111, bound from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Geneva, crashed about seven miles out from this tiny fishing village on the Nova Scotia coast late Wednesday as the pilot struggled in a smoke-filled cockpit to bring the plane in for an emergency landing in Halifax. The dead consisted of 215 passengers and 14 crew members. Swissair officials said Thursday that 137 victims were Americans.
The dead included Dr. Jonathan Mann, 51, a pioneering AIDS researcher and first chief of the United Nations program to combat AIDS, and his wife, Dr. Mary Lou Clements-Mann, 51, also a well-known medical researcher.
At least six U.N. staff members or affiliated personnel also were among the fatalities, according to officials at U.N. headquarters in New York, where flags were lowered to half-staff Thursday.
As authorities here recounted what is known so far about the last moments of Flight 111, a picture emerged of a spiraling emergency that relentlessly engulfed the crew's efforts to save the plane, rather than an instantaneous catastrophe such as an unexpected midair explosion.
Pilot Urs Zimmermann, 50, had time to radio a distress call, receive permission for an emergency landing and dump excess fuel before losing control of the aircraft. The passengers also apparently were warned to prepare for the possibility of a water landing; some of the recovered bodies reportedly were wearing life jackets.
Further clues may begin to emerge today, when 18 divers are scheduled to arrive from a Canadian navy base in British Columbia, according to the Rescue Coordination Center in Halifax. One of their tasks will be to search out the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, the so-called black boxes that sometimes prove crucial in determining the cause of airplane crashes. A Canadian naval submarine and sonar devices dropped from aircraft also are expected to be used to search for large sections of the aircraft.
Canadian Teams Search for Wreckage
On Thursday, according to Lt. Cmdr. Jacques Fauteux, a spokesman for the Canadian navy, navy and coast guard searchers retrieved numerous small bits of wreckage and one large piece of the fuselage from the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 jet--built in Long Beach--but not the recorders.
As the day wore on, wind and waves gradually increased the size of the debris field, until by dusk it measured eight to nine miles square, Fauteux said.
The search, involving an estimated 1,200 military personnel, was expected to continue through the night. It remains officially designated as a search for survivors, but Fauteux acknowledged that none are expected to be found. That conclusion could become official as soon as today when control over the crash scene could pass from the military to the Canadian Transportation Safety Board, charged with finding the cause of the crash.
Authorities here and in Washington said it was too early to speculate on causes but stressed there is no evidence of sabotage.
"It's much to soon to say with certainty what the sequence of events was before the accident," said Benoit Bouchard, head of the Canadian safety board. "I can't tell you today exactly what happened."
In Washington, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said there were no indications that the crash resulted from a terrorist attack.
"My understanding is that all initial information indicates that it was an accident," Reno told reporters Thursday at her weekly news briefing.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, sent a team of crash experts to Nova Scotia headed by Greg Feith, lead investigator of the 1996 ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades.
One of the first tasks facing U.S. and Canadian safety investigators is to form working parties to examine all aspects of the accident, ranging from the condition of the engines and the integrity of the plane's structure to the performance of its crew.
Canadian authorities said that, shortly after 10 p.m. local time Wednesday, the pilot of the aircraft radioed a distress call to air traffic controllers in Moncton, Canada. He reported smoke in the cockpit and requested an emergency landing in Boston. The controllers advised him that Halifax was closer. As is typical of emergency landings, the pilot dumped excess fuel over the ocean and was approaching Halifax International Airport when the aircraft disappeared from radar screens.
Pilot Was Agonizingly Close to His Goal
Philippe Bruggisser, chief executive of SAir Group, Swissair's parent company, told reporters in Zurich that the pilot was agonizingly close to his goal.
"The crash followed around seven to 10 minutes of flying time out of the Halifax airport. Ten minutes more and the aircraft would have landed," he said.