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THE CRASH OF FLIGHT 587

Early Signs Point to Mechanical Failure

Inquiry: Investigators say eyewitness accounts and the pattern of scattered debris indicate that the plane crash was an accident.

November 13, 2001|RICHARD SIMON and MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Investigators probing Monday's crash of an American Airlines jetliner focused on catastrophic mechanical failure as a possible cause of the incident, based on eyewitness accounts and the pattern of debris scattered over a residential New York neighborhood.

Some witnesses said they saw pieces of a wing break away. Some heard an explosion. Others saw one of the plane's two engines fall off. And pieces of the tail were found floating in the water.

While the crash occurred two months after terrorists hijacked and crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, investigators said initial information indicated that the crash was an accident. All 260 people aboard the plane died, and six people on the ground were reported missing, officials said.

"It looks like there was a breakup of the aircraft," said Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "The board will be looking at what event would have triggered that. . . . Everything is a red flag here for the moment."

Barry Schiff, a safety consultant and former airline captain, said crash investigators normally would first look at similar incidents in the past. In the latest crash, however, Schiff said he could think of no obvious comparisons.

"The sequence we are seeing in this crash I think is unprecedented," said Schiff, a retired TWA pilot. "I don't know of another crash where you lose the tail section so cleanly and the vertical fin and a hunk of wing comes off and the engine comes off."

NTSB Chairwoman Marion C. Blakey said: "All information we have currently is that this is an accident." A preliminary review of the plane's maintenance records, she added, found "nothing indicative of a specific problem."

The European-made A300-600 Airbus was put into service in July 1988. It had undergone a maintenance check the day before the crash, after a more thorough safety review Oct. 3, an American Airlines spokesman said. The plane's last major overhaul was in December 1999.

The plane's General Electric CF6-80C2 engines, mounted on the underside of each wing, are widely used on wide-bodied aircraft, powering more than 1,000 commercial airliners, according to a GE spokesman. A version of the engine is used on Air Force One.

An American Airlines spokesman said one of the engines had flown 694 hours since its last overhaul; the other had clocked 9,788 hours since the last overhaul. Typically, engines are overhauled every 10,000 hours.

Since last year, the Federal Aviation Administration has moved to speed the inspection of GE CF6 engines after a Varig Boeing 767 had to abort a takeoff in Sao Paulo, Brazil, because of engine problems. Last month, the FAA said a new rule is needed because "an unsafe condition has been identified that is likely to exist or develop on other products of this same type design."

Last May, an Airbus 300 flying from London to Gambia, Africa, made an emergency landing after an engine failed in flight. British air investigators found a blade from the GE CF6-80C2 turbofan engine had broken off, causing large cracks in the nozzles--vanes that guide air through the engines--and minor damage to the wings and flaps.

The United Kingdom Air Investigations branch recommended that the FAA "expeditiously issue a mandatory instruction" that all similar engines be checked for nozzle cracking.

Previous problems with engine blades breaking off in the GE engines led the NTSB in late 1998 to recommend that the FAA require improvements to the engines. Pratt & Whitney, another leading manufacturer of jet engines, was required to tighten its standards after similar problems.

GE spokesman Rick Kennedy said American completed all of the inspections. And he said he was unaware of any recent problems. He said the engine has the "best reliability record in the world."

"Often, eyewitnesses can be incorrect about their initial impressions as to what they saw," said Susan Couglin, a former vice chairwoman of the NTSB.

Rich Roth, executive director of CTI Consulting, a Bethesda, Md., firm that does aviation security work, said the Airbus 300 "has got a very good safety record. The engines on [the crashed plane] are apparently some of the best they've got. It was apparently a very well built plane."

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Times staff writer Marisa Schultz and researcher Robert Patrick contributed to this report.

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