As experts try to identify crash victims, search for cause focuses on wings

November 04, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

ROSELAWN, Ind. -- The gruesome task of collecting and sorting through what was left of American Eagle Flight 4184 continued yesterday as dozens of coroners and pathologists settled into the tedious and somber task of identifying the remains of the 68 killed.

At the same time, the search for a cause of the Halloween Night disaster focused on the wings of the commuter plane, and whether ice or other weather conditions caused a deadly malfunction that caused the plane to roll over and rocket into the ground.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board shifted much of their probe to Washington, where experts spent the day trying to piece together the sequence of events that led up to the crash of the European-built ATR-72 as it waited to land at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on a flight from Indianapolis.

The stormy and icy conditions under which the plane was flying and the effect they might have had on the plane's turning mechanisms emerged as central concerns. The plane's autopilot, on during the onset of the problems, and the wing flaps, which allow planes to climb or descend, were also central to the investigation. The flaps were slightly extended while the plane was in a holding pattern, not needing to climb or descend.

As recovery efforts continued, some relatives came to the crash site in a soybean field and others to the makeshift morgue in the National Guard Armory 40 miles south.

Pathologists have drawn 68 separate boxes on one wall of the armory and entered the name of each victim in a box. Under each name are tidbits of information that may help investigators in their task: clothing, scars, tattoos, wedding rings, availability of dental records -- anything that might help, said Edward Martelle, an American Eagle spokesman. So far, no bodies had been identified.

Flight 4184 plunged out of a stormy sky Monday afternoon and slammed into this tiny farming community in northwestern Indiana, near the end of a flight from Indianapolis to O'Hare.

Investigators already know that the plane's ailerons, metal slats on the wingtips that pivot to allow the plane to roll to right or left, moved suddenly, sending the plane into a right roll.

Information recovered from the plane's data recorder Tuesday indicated that the plane was at 9,400 feet when the roll began. Then wing flaps, either retracted by the pilot or automatic response, adjusted to the roll, allowing the plane to recover momentarily. But a second, more severe roll, also to the right, turned the plane upside down and sent it plummeting to the ground at more than 200 miles an hour.

RTC Whether icing may have affected the ailerons of some other piece of equipment is being investigated.

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