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CNN Today

Alaska Airlines Flight 261: Searchers Hold Out Hope for Possible Survivors; Crash Takes Heavy Toll on Airlines Employees' Families

Aired February 1, 2000 - 2:01 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Clues to the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 may lie about 700 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The jetliner with 88 people aboard went down yesterday afternoon about 10 miles off the California coast while trying to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles. The Coast Guard says the debris field covers about 15 square miles in the Santa Barbara Channel.

CNN's Greg LaMotte joins us now with the latest from Port Hueneme.

GREG LAMOTTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, time is not on the side of hundreds upon hundreds of searchers who are holding onto hope that somehow some passengers managed to survive yesterday's crash. In 55-degree water, hypothermia sets in in a matter of hours. The crash occurred yesterday afternoon. Even so, the U.S. Navy says this remains a search-and-rescues operation.

So far, four bodies have been recovered, including one infant, two females and a male. The search may have also turned up the flight data recorder.


VICE ADM. THOMAS COLLINS, U.S. COAST GUARD: We have, in fact, heard a pinging. That was the result of efforts from the underwater demolition team from the United States Navy near Port Hueneme, have located pinging. Now, whether that's from one box or two "black boxes" is unknown at this time, but we have a position located.


LAMOTTE: Plane wreckage has been located and recovered, including aircraft insulation. The fuselage has also been spotted. Personal items including such things as stuffed animals, toys and shoes have been recovered. The area of wreckage is wide and deep.


COLLINS: We have a, again, a very tight area, relatively three to five miles, where we believe the aircraft went down. The debris field has been very, very tight. Obviously a complicating factor is the depth of the water in the Santa Barbara Channel. Those familiar with this area know that it's relatively deep water, anywhere in the range of seven -- approximately 700 feet.


LAMOTTE: Privately, some of those involved in the investigation say they expect the operation to go to wreckage recovery by late this afternoon. So far, no divers have gone in the water.

Eighty-eight people were on board that flight, including five crew members and three infants. The pilot radioed mechanical trouble. He was given a clearance for an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport, but moments later the plane plunged 17,000 feet into the Pacific. A U.S. park ranger said he saw the plane go in nose first.

As with all airline accidents, it will likely take weeks if not months to come to a definitive decision about what happened to this Alaskan Airline flight -- Lou.

All right, Greg LaMotte off the coast of California.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: And several miles out into the Santa Barbara Channel, CNN's Jim Hill is on a boat which has been picking up crash debris and searching for victims. He joins us now -- Jim.

JIM HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Natalie, the conditions for searching continue to improve out here in the Santa Barbara Channel. We're just off Anacapa Island where the seas are very calm, getting more so all the time, it appears. The skies continue to be clear and blue. However, the chances of finding someone still alive in this chilly 54, 55 degree water continue to become more remote.

What you're looking at right now is some of the vessels involved in this search. U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, lifeguards from Los Angeles County, as well as a number of civilian vessels, mostly fishing vessels, who have been helping recover some of the debris and so forth since early last night.

Now at this point, it is still, as we've heard, a search-and- rescue operation even though the chances of finding someone alive in the water after some 18 hours would be remote, if not impossible. But that still is the case.

We can take a look, now, at the debris field, or at least some of it, that the searchers are going through. What you can see are yellow objects in the water. These are the clumps of matting or insulation from the aircraft. Other items commonly seen are pieces of seat material, upholstery. But also some -- part of the super-structure of the aircraft has also been located, some with oxygen masks apparently hanging down from them, just above where the passengers would have been.

Now, the Coast Guard is saying at this point it is still a matter of four confirmed fatalities, four bodies recovered: a baby, a man and two adult women.

That is a Coast Guard helicopter going over right now. These helicopters have been in the area all night and all throughout the morning, at some points apparently dropping colored markers or dye markers into the water to pick a particular spot that's of interest to them. But, as I say, still a search-and-rescue operation, although at any time today, it would be likely that the Coast Guard might want to reevaluate this based on not finding anyone alive so far.

I'm Jill Hill, CNN, reporting live off the California coast.

ALLEN: All right, Jim.

The precise cause of the crash probably won't be known until the flight data recorders have been recovered and analyzed.

This is 1995 video of the plane. The MD-83 was manufactured in 1992 and had more than 26,000 of hours in flight. The company said the aircraft did not have a history of maintenance problems. Just before the plane crashed, the pilot reported a problem with the horizontal stabilizers, which are located on the tail and help control up and down motion of the nose.


LEE DICKINSON, FORMER NTSB MEMBER: There may be some problems with the stabilizers. That's not necessarily in and of itself something that would cause an airplane to come out of the sky because pilots are taught to deal with those types of things. That's why I say with we have to be careful and see if this is just a piece of the puzzle or if this is something that could have triggered something else or a result of something else occurring. That will be determined in the investigation.


ALLEN: The FAA said the pilot had been cleared to make an emergency landing at Los Angeles Airport, but apparently lost control before the plane could make it.

WATERS: Alaska Airlines was founded in 1932 and operates a fleet of 88 jets, mostly flying along the West Coast. This is only the third fatal accident in the company's history, but this time there were a lot of company employees and their families aboard.

CNN's Patty Davis is at Alaska Airlines headquarters in Seattle, Washington and joins us now live -- Patty.

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Alaska Airlines spokesman tells us that he is still holding out hope that there are survivors in yesterday's crash. The airline has released a manifest. Most of the passengers here, the names, home towns listed as well; 88 people on board, 83 passengers, five crew members, as you've mentioned.

It looks evenly split, at this point, in terms of home towns between California and Washington, buy they haven't released all the home towns at this point. A heavy toll here at headquarters for Alaska Airlines. While 56 passengers, about two-thirds were paying passengers. A whopping one-third were either Alaska Airlines, Horizon Airlines employees, or families and friends of those employee. So a very heavy toll here at the headquarters.

Now we're going to talk to a Red Cross mental health counselor, Claudette Antuna, who has -- you've dealt with air crash families who have had to deal with -- family members who have been lost in air crashes, specifically EgyptAir. What are these people going through now -- the families?

CLAUDETTE ANTUNA, AMERICAN RED CROSS: Well, I think the first thing that we can expect is there's a lot of denial that's happening, that this is even taking place. We respond naturally to denying that we're in shock and that we don't -- we just don't comprehend why something like this can happen or how it happens. And then there's a period of shock that we will expect from some individuals: people who can't cry, people who just can't talk, people who are just withdrawn, or they're going historical and they're crying. So we can anticipate a whole range of emotions.

DAVIS: Claudette, you're going to be manning the family center at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport today. There were some, what, 13 or so families there yesterday. What do you tell them at a time like this?

ANTUNA: Well, there isn't a lot that you can tell them. First of all, we don't have a lot of information, but we do want to reach out to them and let them know that we're there and that we're there to listen for them and to comfort them as much as we can. We're really there to assess their ability to cope with the situation, whether they're going to need any additional assistance, what the support systems are for them. So we, as mental health practitioners, we take a look at a lot of factors in order to be able to make sure that we can provide the assistance that they need.

DAVIS: Now, some family members will be flying to Los Angeles to meet with NTSB officials. You know, what will they be going through during that?

ANTUNA: Confusion, not understanding what it is that they're expected to do or say. I think there'll be a lot of tears, connecting with other family members, trying to explain what it is that they're doing. A lot of very -- a lot of grief. A lot of mourning for what is happening and beginning to try and figure out why this took place, trying to blame something or someone -- sometimes God.

DAVIS: Thank you.

That was Red Cross mental health counselor Claudette Antuna.

I'm Patty Davis reporting live from Alaska Airlines headquarters in SeaTac, Washington.

WATERS: All right, Patty.

And Alaska Airlines has provided a list of the names of passengers and crew aboard Flight 261 on its Web site. The address for that: On the site, the airlines mentions that, due to one family's request, the names of two passengers are not being released.

Alaska Airlines has set up two toll-free hotline numbers to provide information for families of passengers. U.S. and Canadian residents can call 1-800-553-5117. Those in Mexico can call 1-800- 252-7511.


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