Thursday, December 16, 1999 Back  

Crash probe reaches milestone

Swissair recovery team completes sifting process; testing to follow


Manny Soberal / Transport Safety Board 
Debris gathered from the crash site of Swissair Flight 111 pours from the suction dredge Queen of the Netherlands at a facility in Sheet Harbour in September.

By Patricia Brooks  

The Swissair Flight 111 crash investigation is one step closer to completion.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada announced Wednesday investigators will focus solely on analysing and testing aircraft parts, after workers finished sifting through the last recovered pieces of the MD-11.

"We've reached a milestone . . . as we have completed the recovery efforts," said Vic Gerden, the board's lead investigator in the case.

"But we still have quite a bit of work ahead of us."

A suction-dredge vessel was used in an effort to recover the remaining 10 per cent of the plane, which crashed off Peggys Cove on Sept. 2, 1998.

The material was then shipped to a sorting facility in Sheet Harbour, where local workers and investigators sifted through about one million pieces of cargo, wires, electrical components and other aircraft parts.

Mr. Gerden estimated investigators recovered 98 per cent of the plane, or about 127,090 kilograms of aircraft.

Investigators have "set aside" several thousand important items earmarked for analysis and testing.

They are particularly interested in wires, heat-damaged oxygen tubes, fans and rotors, pieces from the cockpit and aircraft circuit boards, specifically those with computer chips that have retained memory.

"The reason we needed to go to these lengths to obtain as much physical evidence as we could is so we can attempt to reconstruct the final six minutes before the crash," Mr. Gerden said.

Smoke was reported in the plane's cockpit 16 minutes before the crash, which killed all 229 people on board, but investigators don't know for sure how the fire started.

Experts believe tough Kapton wiring coating may have rubbed against and worn down Tefzel wiring insulation, causing sparks to jump from one exposed wire to another.

But Mr. Gerden added that investigators don't know whether the fire caused the arcing, or if the arcing caused the fire.

He also added investigators didn't know how many pieces could help in the reconstruction of the cockpit.

"The pieces . . . haven't been closely studied as of yet."

Further testing of the recent discoveries will continue in January.

Mr. Gerden said valuables recovered during the suction- dredge operation have been returned to their "rightful owners."

Among the valuables reported to be on the plane when it crashed were bank notes, watches, jewelry and one kilogram of diamonds worth millions of dollars.

Mr. Gerden could not say what valuables had been found, referring questions to the RCMP, who did not return calls Wednesday.

Although pieces of the ill-fated aircraft remain on the ocean floor, there are no plans for another recovery operation.

"We've made every reasonable effort to recover the aircraft parts," Mr. Gerden said. "Ninety-eight per cent of the aircraft parts were recovered. . . . I don't think we can do any better."


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