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Breaking News

Alaska Airlines Flight 261 Crashes off Coast of California

Aired January 31, 2000 - 10:00 p.m. ET


JIM MORET, CNN ANCHOR: Floating debris, a smear of jet fuel in the ocean near Los Angeles, the remnants of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, down with as many as 85 people on board.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN NEWSSTAND with anchors Stephen Frazier and Natalie Allen in Atlanta.

MORET: Good evening. This is a special edition of CNN NEWSSTAND. Natalie and Stephen are off. I'm Jim Moret in Los Angeles. We'll be devoting much of this hour to the Alaska Airlines crash.

A search-and-rescue operation is underway right now off the coast of California near Point Mugu. That's where a jetliner crashed just over three hours ago. Federal aviation authorities say Alaska Airliners Flight 261 was about 20 miles northwest of Los Angeles when it disappeared from radar. As many as 80 passengers and 5 crew members were on board. This was a daily flight from Puerto Rico -- Puerta Vallarta, rather, Mexico, direct to San Francisco.

FAA officials tell CNN about one hour into the flight, crew members radioed for permission to land at Los Angeles International Airport. The apparently were having unspecified mechanical problems with the aircraft, identified as an MD-83, part of the MD-80 series.

On the scene now, Coast Guard ships and helicopters and an assortment of local rescue crew.

Jennifer Auther is also at the scene at Point Mugu, at the naval air station there.

Jennifer, what's the latest?

JENNIFER AUTHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, from here I can tell you that officials here at Point Mugu Naval Air Station tell us that a P-30 -- excuse me -- a P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft went up about 4:30 local time in California here, along with a helicopter combat support unit, an HCS-5 (ph) and HH-60 (ph) Seahawk helicopter. Both of these search-and-rescue units are equipped with night-vision capability, so the search does continue out here.

We're getting very little information as to what they're finding. It is very dark out here. We're told that the waters off the shore here -- that the crash happened about 20 miles off the coastline here, and that, in fact, water can be up to 400 feet deep here. We are told from the FAA that at least 60 people, including crew, were on board. This is an MD-80 that reported having some mechanical problems, asked for permission to go back and land at LAX. That permission was granted, and apparently it did not make it.

So the search from this area continues. It will continue into the night, we are told, for as long as it takes.


MORET: Jennifer, you identify a number of individuals that are being committed to this search-and-rescue effort. It's still being called a search-and-rescue effort, isn't it?

AUTHER: Yes, it is. At this point, it's still being called search-and-rescue effort. We're getting that from a Doris Lantz (ph) out here at Point Mugu. She tells us that the HH-60 surveillance rescue helicopter will continue for as long as it takes. She says she hasn't been given any information that they're slowing down this search at all.

MORET: We've been told and we've been reading reports that there have been bodies recovered, that no survivors have yet been identified. Do you have any further information on that, Jennifer?

AUTHER: Well, I put that question to Cora Fields. She is speaking on behalf of the Point Mugu officials out here. She said she has not heard any of those reports. So we're unable to confirm reports of bodies having surfaced from this point.

MORET: We are told that a news conference is going to be taking place momentarily, Jack Evans from Alaska Air. Let's take that right now.

JACK EVANS, ALASKA AIR: It was manufactured in 1992. The flight was en route from Puerto Vallarta to San Francisco, and it was a scheduled flight continuing on to Seattle. The plane diverted to Los Angeles -- was diverting to Los Angeles International Airport when it was lost.

Some specifics on the aircraft -- again, tail number 963, manufactured in 1992. The pilot radioed a problem with stabilizer trim when the plane was diverted to Los Angeles, and this aircraft had no history of stabilizer trim problems. The aircraft is powered by two JT8D Pratt & Whitney engines. That's J as in John, T as in Tom, numeral 8, D as in David Pratty & Whitney engines.

Recent maintenance on the aircraft included servicing just yesterday, on January 3rd, 2000 -- 30th, 2000 -- and two recent checks. On January 11th of this month an A-check was performed, and then last year, on January 13th, a C-check was performed. The aircraft had 26,584 hours of flight time, and had completed 14,315 cycles. A cycle is one take-off and one landing.

We operate 88 aircraft. Thirty-five of those are MD-80s. And I want to provide this information for all media outlets. We have established a hotline for friends and family, and that number, once again, is 1-800-553-5117.

I'll take your questions, and again, I may not have all the information right at hand, so please let me know what you want to know.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How many flight hours...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ... tell us about what the captain was saying when he radioed to LAX?

EVANS: Just that there were problems with the stabilizer trim.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How many flight hours again on the airplane?

EVANS: The aircraft had 26,584 hours of flight time and 14,315 cycles.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Jack, do you know if the crew was out of Seattle?

EVANS: I do not have that information yet.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What sort of service was -- was done on the plane yesterday?

EVANS: I don't have the specifics on what type of service was performed yesterday.


EVANS: I don't have that information.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Any closer to releasing a passenger list?

EVANS: We are closer, but I don't know how much closer.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you know how many people were supposed to land in Seattle?

EVANS: I don't have the number of passengers continuing on to Seattle, at this point.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ... January 13, 1999?

EVANS: Correct, and a C-check -- there are four series of checks, an A, B, C and a D check. C is the second heaviest check.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Jack, what was the last accident for Alaska Airlines (INAUDIBLE)

EVANS: I don't have that information immediately available. It was in the mid-1970s.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Any comment from Alaska's CEO, at this point?

EVANS: Right now John (ph) is over at our command center. He is planning to fly to Los Angeles tonight. Obviously, he's very concerned about the situation and wanted me to stress to all of you that our hearts are with the passengers, with the friends and families of those passengers, and we're going to do everything we can for them. They are our number-one priority at Alaska Airlines.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Again, do you know if it was or not a Seattle-based crew?

EVANS: At this point, I do not have confirmation on whether or not it was a Seattle-based crew, but I will be getting that information shortly.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What are the airline's preparations for the family members of those on board?

EVANS: What we are doing and what we have done this evening is we have dispatched a passenger assistance team, which is made up of literally hundreds of airline employees here at Alaska Airlines. Those people will be going not only to the airport here in Seattle, but to other locations throughout our route system where passengers may have been expected. And they will be there to provide whatever passengers' friends and families need of them. And that's all we're going to -- that's what they're going to do. I don't know exactly where people are right now, but as I have that information, I'll provide it to you.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You called that "passenger" what?

EVANS: Passenger assistance team.


EVANS: There are several hundred. I don't have an exact count, but I will get that for you.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You said radio contact was lost at 4:36. Do you know what time (INAUDIBLE)

EVANS: I do not know.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What's the latest word from the Coast Guard right now?

EVANS: I have not gotten any reports from the Coast Guard. Unfortunately, I'll have to direct you to the Coast Guard and getting your reports from them.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you describe a little bit in more detail about yesterday's service check? Do you know if it -- was it -- what kind of check was it? EVANS: Yeah, I do not know. It was just -- it was indicated on the -- on the maintenance records that it was serviced yesterday, and I will get some more details on exactly what kind of servicing...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Wouldn't the records show where it was serviced and...

EVANS: Correct. They will, and I will get that information for you, as well.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You said there was a check on January 11th?

EVANS: There was a check -- an A-check was completed on January 11th.



EVANS: An A-check is the -- is the -- is the -- is the most -- or least intrusive of the three checks. Obviously, a heavier check, you get more and more involved in the aircraft. But a heavy check was performed approximately a year ago on this aircraft.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And that was a routine...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ... maintenance scheduled or was it in response to a problem?

EVANS: An A-check or a C-check was scheduled...


EVANS: The service yesterday I don't have any -- any information on what -- what was required -- why it was required.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The C-check was January 13th, 1999?

EVANS: C-check was the 13th of '99. Correct.

UNIDENTIFIED LOCAL ANCHOR: Again, you have been listening to Jack Evans. He's a spokesperson for Alaska Airlines. To recap...

MORET: Let's turn now to our aviation expert, our Washington correspondent, Carl Rochelle, who is also a certified pilot and a flight instructor.

Carl, we've heard of a problem being radioed by a pilot with the stabilizer trim. Explain what that means.

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: I will. And I think if -- I have a model of the aircraft on the way in. If I can get that hustled on in here, I can probably give you a little better read on what that is. But let me -- let me create a little bit of a model here with -- OK, you can see the airplane here. But if you look on the very top part of the -- of the tail, the rudder, you see the elevators. And the elevators are what make the airplane go up and down. And this is the -- called a "T-tail" configuration. But this is what makes the airplane go up and down.

When the airplane -- there's a lot of pressure on that from the air going over it and the effort to make the airplane go up and down or in level flight. And so what happens is you use the trim to trim the control forces off so that you can handle them comfortably with your hands. You trim it for climb. You trim it for descent. You trim it for level flight. It is a tool that a pilot of that level uses almost as much as they do any -- any particular tool in the aircraft, by using this up and down.

And there are a couple of ways that it works, and one of the ways that it works is by having on the outside part of -- if -- if we can take a picture -- let me -- let me show you a little bit of the aircraft that I have in my hand now. See if we can stabilize this.

This is where it would be. This is sort of upside down. It's a small aircraft, but -- this is the area here. And on the back part of this, right in this area, there would be a couple of similar control surfaces, and those control surfaces are connected by a trim tab, a trim wheel. And in the cockpit, the crew can run that wheel back and forth.

And when the airplane takes off, as you take off and break ground, you begin to rise at the airplane like this and climb. You trim those pressures off so you're not pulling all of that back pressure with your hand. And the airplane will literally fly hands- off, if you trim it properly. When you get up to altitude, you level the plane over and you again trim those pressures off. When you go back down, you're now trimming off the pressures to go down, so the trim tab goes in the opposite direction.

Now, all of these aircraft are equipped with electric trim, and the electric trim means simply that you have a button, a thumb switch on your control yoke -- both the captain does, and the first officer both have this little button on the trim tab on the control yoke. And they can move the button back and forth, and that is what they trim those pressures with.

Now, one of the mandatory items that you go through on a checklist is you have to know where the -- where the circuit-breaker is for that electric trim because there is such a thing as runaway trim, and that is when for one reason or the other, the trim jams. And the quick fix for that is to reach over and pull the circuit- breaker out. That turns the electric motors off that drive the trim, and then you can just trim it by hand because there's a large wheel that you can actually get some hand pressure on to move that wheel around.

But it can cause problems. If, for instance, the airplane -- if you wanted to go up and it's trimmed nose down and you can't get it to go back up, then you have a problem. If you want it to go up, and you can't trim it down -- you can only trim it down, then you have a problem. So this could be a serious problem in controlling the aircraft.

To my knowledge, there is no history of trim problems with the MD-80, MD-82, 83, DC-9, any of this particular category of aircraft. They do have mechanical linkages, if you will, control cables and wires, that are hydraulically assisted or electrically assisted, in the case of the trim tab. And I'm not qualified to fly the DC-9 myself, or the MD-80, but I'm very familiar with the systems that operate in it and how it operates. And that could be a problem.

We are told that there was difficulty with the control system coming in, that it could be something that broke or jammed or caused the airplane to go out of control. Unclear at this point what effect what they saw had on what happened there.

What they're going to be doing, of course, is recovering those black boxes. The flight data recorder will be extremely important in this, as will the cockpit voice recorder because the flight data recorder will tell the crew -- will tell the investigators what was happening with the mechanical systems on the airplane at the time of the crash.

The cockpit voice recorder will tell the investigators how the crew was trying to deal with what the problem was, if it is a problem with the elevator trim, what the problem was and how they are trying to correct it. And you can also hear the mechanical noises as they're trying to make things happen around the cockpit of the aircraft. So all of that is what they will be looking for.

We do know that a "go team" is being assembled in Washington, expected to leave here 2:00 o'clock or so Eastern time this morning, about four hours from now, headed out to the area like that, and they will be in the middle of the investigation.

Jim, one of the questions that was asked earlier was about the rescue or recovery operation. It's been my experience in this particular kind of situation, it would probably continue to be a rescue operation for a couple of days -- here again, depending on the water. As long as there is any indication, any chance of finding a survivor of the crash, then it continues to be a rescue operation.

When you hear them change from a rescue operation to a recovery -- search-and-recovery operation would be the term -- then it means that they have pretty much given up hope that there are any survivors left out there. But it's early to go to a recovery operation.

I'm sure they'll stay at a rescue operation for some time to come. Again, water temperature is always a factor because of hypothermia. But they are in the area looking now, and people have been known to survive for 24, 48 hours in this kind of situation, and sometimes it's inexplicable how they do survive, but they do. And that's what they're trying to do now is try to find if there is anyone in that area, anyone who survived the crash. That's the first priority. Beyond that, the black boxes next, and then, of course, recovering wreckage. And it remains to be seen how much of the wreckage they can recover. You recall in Egyptair 990, it was down very deep in very rough waters, the North Atlantic in the wintertime. Ostensibly, the waters off of the coast of California may be a little bit better now, not quite as stormy. But the depth will have a big -- a big weight in what happens and how they can recover it. So all of these are factors that will play out as things move forward, Jim.

MORET: CNN's Carl Rochelle reporting live from Washington. Stand by, Carl.

As Carl has just identified, the pilot radioed with problems of the stabilizer trim on this flight 261 Alaska Airlines. As Carl just illustrated with that model and as we showed you with that graphic, that could go to the controllability and maneuverability of the aircraft. According to Jack Evans of Alaska Airlines based in Seattle, at the news conference we just took live, he said that there were no prior problems with this specific aircraft, which was built in 1992. It's identified as an MD-83, a variation of the MD aircraft that you see there.

The plane was last serviced on January 30th, and it had a major or an A-check completed on January 11th of this year. Some 26,584 hours of flight time on this particular aircraft. Alaska Airlines operates 88 planes, 35 of them are MD-80s.

Let's go back to Jennifer Auther at Point Mugu Naval Air Station in California with the latest.


AUTHER: We are standing here, Jim, and I am wanting to introduce the audience now to Cora Fields. She is the public affairs officer here at Point Mugu Naval Air Station.

Tell us specifically what is the Navy involvement in this search- and-rescue effort?

CORA FIELDS, POINT MUGU NAS SPOKESPERSON: At approximately 4:30 this afternoon, our air traffic control facility was notified that there was a possible plane down approximately 11 miles off the coast. We immediately dispatched a P-3 Orion aircraft. That's a surveillance aircraft. And then we also dispatched an HH-60 Seahawk helicopter. They are from our helicopter combat support squadron 5, and they are equipped with night-vision capabilities.

Right now we're primarily just assisting in a search-and-rescue operation off the coast. We do operate a 36,000-square-mile seat test range, and so we constantly monitor the air traffic that's in our local area. There were no tests and no aircraft from Point Mugu in the area at that time, and so we dispatched some units, and we're just assisting any way that we can at this time.

AUTHER: Earlier we heard you talking about whether or not your radar was able to pick up this aircraft and whether or not anything showed up from here.

FIELDS: Right. We understand that they were under control by the Los Angeles center, but we do have an air traffic control facility that monitor aircraft from 8,000 feet to the surface, and so we would have been able to pick up the aircraft on our radars.

AUTHER: Who is the lead agency here? Are you basically able to call this off, or are you staying in it for the long haul?

FIELDS: Primarily, we understand that the Coast Guard is the lead agency, but because we are the closest air station to the location of the crash, we are able to refuel and go back out as much as is needed. And I'm sure that the Coast Guard would be the lead agency to call off the search or continue.

AUTHER: And could you describe for our national audience the type of waters out here? Obviously not as cold and as rough as we would see in the Northeast.

FIELDS: Well, it is a fairly deep area. It is within the California bite (ph), and there are coastal islands, and we understand that the aircraft went down close to Anacapa Island. But the water here in California is pretty chilly, even by my standards, so...

AUTHER: And for those who might not know "California bite"?

FIELDS: The California bite is the actual coastal eddy or -- I'm sorry, the coastal bank that is underneath the ocean there. So that's what they call it, the California bite. And it drops off very steeply after that.

AUTHER: So how many crews, how many sailors would you say are out there? How much testing -- how much training do they have for this type of search and rescue?

FIELDS: We send our crews out very often. The HCS-5, they are continually under -- they continually test and -- and remain capable and ready to do search-and-rescue type of operations. There are approximately 8,000 employees here at Point Mugu, of which about 2,500 are military. A P-3 crew is approximately 211 crew members, if that's -- if it's that full complement. And I believe it's about 7 for the HCS-5 unit.

AUTHER: All right, Cora Fields from Point Mugu, thank you very much. And as you can tell, when our lights out here died, it is extremely, extremely dark for the search-and-rescue crews that are out there.


MORET: CNN's Jennifer Auther at Point Mugu.

Let's bring in now Charles Feldman, a correspondent here in Los Angeles who's also a licensed pilot, and Susan Coughlin, a CNN aviation analyst joining us by telephone.

Let us also bring you up to date. According to Alaska Airlines, 80 passengers were on board, 5 crew, including 2 pilots, 3 attendants.

Charles, first to you. Based upon everything that we've heard so far -- and we have to stress that this is just preliminary information. But based upon what we've heard so far, are there things that can be ruled out?

CHARLES FELDMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, of course, it's always, as you pointed out, premature to rule anything in or out at this stage, but there are some things that one can deduce fairly quickly. For example, it is vitally important for this investigation that the pilot of this aircraft was in contact with air traffic control.

So if there was a catastrophic explosion, for example, or a terrorist act or a hijacking, that sort of thing, you could rule that out almost automatically because the pilot gave no indication of any of those problems in the communications between the aircraft and air traffic control. And in fact, quite to the contrary, what little we know is that the pilot had some concerns with a mechanical problem, as Carl Rochelle pointed out earlier, apparently the stabilizer trim on the aircraft.

Now, whether or not that's the item that caused the crash is still to be determined, but you can rule out very quickly some of those other potential problems just because there was communication between the cockpit and air traffic control. Now, how detailed that conversation was we don't know yet, and a lot is going to depend, of course, on an analysis of that discussion between the pilot and air traffic control, as well as the recovery of those black boxes that we always hear about, the voice recorder recording the conversations inside the cockpit, as well as the other recorder that records the various telemetry given out by the aircraft.

Whether this is a more sophisticated black box or a less sophisticated on, we don't know yet. But depending on what it records, and if it's found intact and functioning, it will go a long way to tell what it was exactly that caused this crash.

MORET: Susan Coughlin, what are your thoughts, as you hear what Charles was talking about? Do you agree that there are certain things that you can rule out based upon what we've been hearing, or does it raise more questions than answers?

SUSAN COUGHLIN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, no, obviously, it's early and it's preliminary, but there was obviously enough time for the crew to communicate to air traffic control that they were having some difficulties controlling the airplane, that they had a mechanical problem. They were requesting permission to divert to LAX. And obviously, had there been a catastrophic destruction of the airplane, there wouldn't have been that -- that time to respond and to communicate with air traffic control.

But having said that, beyond what the preliminary conversation with air traffic was, it's very difficult to speculate and very difficult to know whether there were additional things in addition to what they said that might have complicated their ability to control the airplane. And as everybody's been pointing out, one of the things that will help them unravel that is the recovery of the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder. The flight data recorder presumably, or hopefully, was one that had -- was recording a number of parameters and will give them a fairly full picture of what the mechanical status of the systems aboard the airplane was at the time that the crew radioed that they were having difficulty.

MORET: As we continue to look at photos -- video courtesy of KCAL, CNN affiliate here in Los Angeles -- Susan, we heard some facts and figures from Jack Evans, Alaska Airlines in Seattle, at the news conference, that the airplane was manufactured in 1992. It was last serviced on January 30th of 2000. The last A-check was completed on January 11th. And he identified as 26,584 hours of flight time.

What does this tell you? Is this significant?

COUGHLIN: No. It's a -- it's not a -- it would not be considered an aging aircraft. It's been -- it had a heavy check, a D- check, where they go over the entire airplane, as recently as a year ago. It had an A-check, which is a -- it's the least complex check -- just a week or two ago. It was -- apparently had some service yesterday, and it's not clear what that service was. It might have been very routine.

It didn't -- it was not considered -- from the number of flight hours on it or the number of cycles on it, it was not considered an old airplane. Obviously, one of the things that the maintenance group from the NTSB will be looking for is the extent to which the airplane was maintained by FAA standards, but the -- Alaska Airlines has a good record in that area.

And yet the NTSB will have to go back and verify by actually maintenance records on this airplane what was done yesterday, what was done on January 11th and how thorough and -- those inspections were and see if any details pop out to them that might be significant when they correlate it with the flight data recorder and also the conversations with the tower or the LA center and on the cockpit voice recorder.

MORET: Charles Feldman, we mentioned earlier you're a licensed pilot. You routinely fly in and around the area of Los Angeles International Airport, Santa Monica Airport, which is just north and presumably this area, as well, which is some 20 miles or so northwest of LA -- LA Airport. Describe the area with respect to the control, the controlled air space.

FELDMAN: Well, it's highly controlled. The aircraft, when it encountered -- or at least, when we first learned that it encountered a problem, was at 17,000 feet, which is a fairly high altitude. It would be in airspace that was under what they call "positive air traffic control." That means that the airspace is very regulated. The pilots flying there tend to be, at 17,000 feet anyway, instrument rated, although they don't have to be until 18,000 feet.

It is a very strict conditions for flying around there, especially since they're in an area that's very crowded airspace. You're over Los Angeles International Airport, Santa Barbara Airport. There is a naval air station, Point Mugu, which regularly has very fast military jet traffic going in and out of that -- that field.

So it's a very controlled airspace, and as I mentioned earlier, I think on Larry King, I -- one of the things that I find out interest, Jim, is that there were some other airports that the aircraft could have landed at other than LAX that was actually closer, and that might be an indication of whether or not the pilot lost control to the degree that he couldn't elect to go somewhere closer. The plane crashed about 27 miles northwest of LAX, and that would put it in an area that's actually close to both that naval air station that I mentioned, which has a very long runway that could certainly accommodate an MD-83 in an emergency situation. And it's also close to Santa Barbara airport. Although their runways are smaller, it could also land, a jet of that type, especially in an emergency.

So the fact that the pilot didn't make it to either of those airports might be -- and I underline the word "might" -- an indication on how severe the loss of control was of that aircraft. And one can only imagine the efforts being made by the flight crew to try to get that aircraft stabilized before it slammed at rather high speed into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California.

MORET: Susan Coughlin, we have about a minute left before we have to take a break. The airline identified a passenger assistance team of several hundred people going to locations where passengers were expected to disembark. And this plane was bound from Puerto Vallarta to San Francisco, and then continuing to Seattle.

Talk briefly about the responsibility of the airlines with respect to what should be done and what is being done in these situations. Susan Coughlin?

Susan Coughlin, talk briefly about the responsibility of the airlines in their ability to respond to these situations.

COUGHLIN: Well, most -- most airlines have a command center for just this type of activity. And in the unlikely and rare times that they -- that they need to put them into operation, they can pull them together fairly quickly. They have their operations people. They have their public affairs people. They have their emergency coordinators, so that they can very quickly establish 1-800 numbers, get mechanical records for the airplane, understand what the operational aspect of the airplane was at the time, when they left, when the service was done, who was on board, get passenger manifests together. And they can fairly quickly bring themselves together to respond publicly to this type of an event. Obviously, they don't have to respond very often. That's the good news. But when they do, they've got the capability to be able to respond publicly.

MORET: Susan Coughlin, CNN aviation analyst, Charles Feldman, CNN correspondent here in Los Angeles, thank you.

We're going to take a break in CNN NEWSSTAND's coverage of the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261. And as we go into break, we're going to leave you with the full screen of the 800 number available for relatives and friends to call.



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