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Special Event

Alaska Airlines Flight 261: No Survivors Found As NTSB and Coast Guard Now Focus on Search-and-Recovery Effort

Aired February 2, 2000 - 2:19 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Take you now live to Port Hueneme, California, where the NTSB and the Coast Guard are holding a news conference about the investigation into Alaska Airlines Crash 261.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

VICE ADM. TOM COLLINS, U.S. COAST GUARD: Good morning.

I apologize for the delay in this press availability. We were engaged in some essential communications with the families of those involved in Flight 261, and that we felt that that communication with the families was appropriate. We wanted to make sure it was as thorough as we can make it, and we've been actively under way in that process.

So, now let me do two -- several things in my comments, this morning. I would like to first update you on the evening and morning's events, give you a summary of our total effort to date and then outline our next steps, especially regarding the search and rescue aspects of this tragedy.

We continued our search efforts through the evening and into this morning. In fact, we've set a whole new set of search patterns and assignments at first light in addition to searching through the evening. The Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton is -- remains as our on- scene coordinator on the water for on-the-water operations, both helicopter and surface assets. There were five Coast Guard cutters involved last evening and into this morning, three helicopters and a C-130 aircraft. And the naval vessels Jarrett, Fife, and an explosive ordnance detachment, swarth (ph) vessel, also participated in the event, evening and morning.

We continued to have favorable weather conditions: five knots of wind from the northwest, visibility in excess of seven miles, and two to three feet seas. The debris field slightly expanded, but not dramatically; slight drift to the southwest, but not dramatic.

Results of our efforts: We have found no survivors to date, no additional victims other than what's previously reported, and a small additional amounts of debris.

We are now over 41 hours into this search-and-rescue effort. And you look back and give you a recap on that total effort. We've had a total of eight Coast Guard cutters, giving us a larger surface platforms, involved in this search from very early in the search. We've had two Coast Guard boats, small boats, five Coast Guard helicopters, two HA-65s, and three HA-60 helicopters, two Coast Guard C-130 aircraft, three major United States Navy major combatants, the Fife, Jarrett and Fletcher, and assorted other vessels -- VOD vessels and the like, one P-3 U.S. Navy Orion aircraft, an Air Force C-130 aircraft, two Air Force helicopters, one NOAA vessel, one National Guard helicopter, seven local fishing vessels, 17 other commercial and private vessels, and additional Navy assets available or en route are on-scene to continue efforts.

We have expended well over 43,000 manhours on a search that's covered over 1,000 coastal, 1,100 square miles through 58 separate search patterns and assignments covering 4,000, almost 4,400 track- line miles of steaming by our major ships.

And as recap, we have not found survivors. We had located four victims and we have identified pinger sources that we believe to be the sites of the data recorder and so forth.

As previously reported, we've recovered a number of debris items, items from the aircraft crash, and those are being sorted and cataloged, continue to be as we speak.

I'm faced with a difficult decision at this juncture in assessing the search-and-rescue effort and where we go from here. Indeed, this kind of decision is probably the most difficult one for any operation commander directing a search-and-rescue effort. A number of factors weigh heavy in my decision. Number one, a very high confidence that we have searched in the right place. We have direct observation of the crash. We have on-scene relatively quickly. We inserted a data market buoy that gives us good indications of drift over the terms of the search. We've had low drift challenges. We've had a tight debris field. We've identified the location of the pinger and, again, all in a very -- relatively tight area.

That's factor number one. Factor number two, we've had very good search conditions throughout most of the search time. Three, we've had a significant number of surface and air assets to cover this relatively small area. We've used, from my professional assessment, good search techniques, we've had good equipment assistance on-scene. Very importantly, we've had dedicated and professional people working on this case.

The sixth factor is, of course, the water temperature versus time dynamic, and of course we have far exceeded our estimates of survivability in looking at those factors.

We have attempted, in making this decision, to err on the side of safety and the best outcome. We have tried to err to give every chance for success in finding survivors. I think we have reached that point, based upon the factors that I've outlined, that we must proceed to the next phase of this incident, this tragedy, and that next phase will be transitioning from the search-and-rescue phase to the search- and--recovery. That will be effective midday today. What does that mean in practical terms? First, that means the Coast Guard transitions to a support role in lieu of a leading role of this incident. Second, it means the leading role goes to the hands of the National Transportation Safety Board as the incident commander concerned with the investigatory efforts, recovery efforts, and so forth. It also means the United States Navy will continue to take -- have an active role, particularly in the recovery aspects, giving it's great experience and resources and capabilities in this area. It also means that the search-oriented resources that have been devoted, some of which will be released. But I must stress that -- including the Coast Guard cutter Hamilton, for example, as well as the major Navy combatants. However, a good deal of assets will remain in a support role to the recovery operations. And, in fact, the Navy is bringing alternative assets to bare, to be on-scene to help with the recovery efforts.

We've, again, taken a great deal of time this morning and last night, by the way, a trip to L.A., to lay out these issues to the families, those that have gathered in Los Angeles, and also telephonically, this morning, the best we could, efforts involved with Alaska Airlines to ensure that that particular communication has taken place.

I believe that decision we're making today is the right decision and it's at the right point, and we'll move on to the next phase. We will -- from the Coast Guard perspective, we look forward to working and supporting and continuing a substantial role in this effort.

I would also -- I would like to particularly thank and recognize the vast amount of support that we've received from a whole host of state, local and federal agencies and private vessel and commercial vessels that have dedicated a great deal of their time to working the search-and-rescue phase. And I won't attempt to list them all because I'm going to leave someone out, but they know who they are. Although I will make one specific reference, and that's, of course, the United States Navy who provides the facility that we're here this morning, and has consistently provided an incredibly great logistics support as well as on-the-water expertise. And they will continue to have a major role. My hat's off to a fellow armed service that we continue to work with everyday and very closely.

I think we have a pretty good basis of cooperation established in many of the agencies -- sheriff's department and California Highway Patrol, and on and on -- that has established -- the Red Cross -- that are working some of the issues. Those players will remain key partners as the National Transportation Safety Board -- as we pass the baton to the National Transportation Safety Board we will retain a command cell here at Port Hueneme to support that effort, and we look forward to doing that aggressively.

Thank you very much.

JOHN HAMMERSCHMIDT, NTSB: Thank you, Admiral Collins.

Again, my name is John Hammerschmidt, I'm a board member of the National Transportation Safety Board. And speaking of the families that Admiral Collins visited with yesterday evening, let me also introduce here on the stage Mr. Dick Rodriguez, who is our investigator in charge for this accident investigation, and Mr. Rodriguez also helped to brief the families on the status of the investigation last night.

And speaking of the families, let me again express to all those who have been suffering the loss of family, loved ones and friends, that the thoughts and prayers and concerns of the National Transportation Safety Board are certainly with you during this very, very difficult time. This opportunity that we are engaged in right here is an opportunity to let the NTSB officially state that we are now officially in charge of the overall incident response, and as we transition into this stage of the incident response, let me thank Admiral Collins on behalf of the U.S. Coast Guard for their continuing help that will be necessary as we move forward.

The U.S. Navy, as Admiral Collins referenced, will be critical, essential in the progress of our investigation. They have already positioned a number of their assets here locally. They are planning on deploying them -- these are new assets -- beginning to deploy them later on today. These -- I might reference some of these vessels, if you haven't already gotten this information.

Four vessels in particular are involved in this continuing effort to recover the remains and the wreckage of accident Flight 261. The motor vessel Kelly Schouwest (ph) is on scene, as in it arrived today and should going out this afternoon or this evening. It has a remote operated vehicle Scorpio on board as well side-scan sonar capabilities.

In addition, the U.S. naval vessel Sioux, that's as in S-I-O-U-X, is at the pier, was about two hours ago. It also has side-scan sonar, and it is expecting to be outfitted with the ROV, the remote operated vehicle, or vessel Embark -- excuse me. Don't have the name of that particular ROV, but that's not critical.

In addition, we have the motor vessel Independence arriving with an ROV, and we also have what is called an EOD vessel with also many capabilities for helping us recover the remains and the wreckage.

And I might mention that we will be having a Navy person probably at our next press opportunity to detail exactly what is being done in this area. Of course, they have the expertise and we are relying on them for their work in that area. So I just wanted to touch on that at this opportunity.

We had been hoping to have a press opportunity this afternoon to perhaps provide some more details as far as investigative subjects go, but due to the late start on this press briefing, we may entertain some questions in that area and hold off on that 2:00 press briefing and provide a more detailed dissemination of information, as far as the investigation is concerned, at an evening press briefing. As many of you know from our report -- our briefing yesterday, we will be holding a progress meeting at the end of each day of the investigation. Tonight's progress meeting will be at 6:00 p.m. It should last about an hour, perhaps longer. Following that progress meeting -- and again, that is where our different working groups come in and report on what they had learned during the day -- we will assimilate what is cross referenced at that progress meeting and then report any factual information to you this evening. That should be in the vicinity of 8:30 p.m. tonight and that will really be our first opportunity today to get into information concerning the actual investigation of this accident flight.

To recap what was mentioned at yesterday's briefing, we have four working groups on the scene today. We have an air traffic control group. That working group is at the Los Angeles air traffic control center today working, located in Palmdale, California. We have not had a report from them today.

Our next group would be the operations group. That group has been working very hard from early this morning. That is the group that is interviewing pilot witnesses that say they saw the accident flight as it was descending toward the surface of the ocean, and they are continuing with those interviews.

I might mention in passing there has been some information in the news about the flight preceding the accident flight, in other words, the inbound flight into Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, as having reported some -- possibly reported some mechanical discrepancies, and this particular working group, or operations group, has frozen, figuratively speaking, frozen that flight crew, in other words, had them taken off the line so that we can interview them as expeditiously as possible.

The next group we have working today back at our command post is what we call our witness group and that group is interviewing the individuals who saw the aircraft as it was descending, individuals who were not piloting aircraft, not aboard aircraft, in other words, people positioned on the ground.

And the fourth group would be our structures/air-worthiness group and that group has been working already today for the wreckage that's being brought in over at the pier area on this installation and that -- the group chairman on that group is hoping to be able to leave with one of the naval vessels this afternoon or early evening to be able to utilize the on board equipment, and when the ROV goes down to survey -- hopefully to survey the wreckage area, that we'll be in a good position to help expedite the recovery of the flight recorders. So we are hopeful in that area.

That's just a thumbnail sketch of what we are involved in today as far as our onscene investigation goes. Of course, work is being done back in Washington, of course, and therefore I have pretty much covered the waterfront in terms of what we have learned since yesterday's press briefing. Again, we will hopefully have more information to disseminate this evening, and I would be glad to entertain a few questions at this point.

QUESTION: A couple points -- John... QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) ... that the crew that flew this plane to Mexico complained that the horizontal stabilizer was not operating properly. Is that correct and what was done about it?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, in that regard, let me just say that we are looking into that and we may have some information on that tonight.

No, we don't know if it's true. We're investigating that report.

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Chairman Hall told us this morning on CNN that you had tapes with conversations with the crew and the maintenance base, discussing this problem and what they were trying to do about it. Is there anything out of those tapes that you can share with us at this point, any factual information.

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Not at that point.

That's my understanding, is they were talking to the maintenance personnel at Seattle -- Seattle, Washington, excuse me.

QUESTION: When do you expect to have the results of the analysis of that tape?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: I don't really know. We're interested in learning that as soon as we can, but that's just another ingredient in the investigation, so I don't have an answer to that.

QUESTION: How extensive are those tapes, and what's the period of time that those conversation cover?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Don't have that information right now.

QUESTION: I'm sorry, did you have to answer?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: No -- yes.

QUESTION: Question for you, if I can, and one for the vice admiral. Do you know -- you said the Chuest (ph) is going out today. Will it actually put an remote vehicle or a remote underwater vehicle in the water today and start taking some pictures, do you know?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, I'm not sure about the -- well, it will be taking video, yes, yes. That is the intention at this point.

QUESTION: OK. And also you referred, sir, to the pingers obviously which you -- we knew yesterday, but I wasn't sure if you were referring to them in a singular or plural fashion. Have you, in fact, found...

COLLINS: We've had reports of multiples, the two pingers. We believe the United States Navy and its equipment have identified that, and that will be, obviously, a focal point during the recovery phase, and I'll leave exactly what those gameplans are to the National Transportation Safety Board and the Navy. But that was one of the products of our search effort, was identification of two pingers.

QUESTION: Have you been able to actually attempt a retrieval of either of those pingers today?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, I believe we're talking about this evening, as opposed to today. But I don't want to get anyone's hopes up in that regard, but there is a chance, yes. That's what I've been told.

QUESTION: Will the side scanning and the...

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Let me refine this. Mr. Rodriguez just made a good point. Of course, you know -- let me just refine this other answer. When you talk about pingers, there's always a possibility that a pinger could be separated from the actual flight recorder. Therefore, you know, that would have to be kept in prospective, so.

Yes.

QUESTION: Now will the side-scanning sonar be in the water tonight, and will the pinger-detection equipment be working tonight?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: In terms of the pinger-detection equipment, my assumption is yes. In terms of the side-scan sonar, I don't have a definitive answer. Many of these questions about the -- as I say, the actual recovery by the United States Navy of the remains and the wreckage are issues that we have worked with in several recent investigations. I'm sure many of you are aware of the TWA flight 800 investigation, the EgyptAir investigation and others, and the expertise in that area is really with the U.S. Navy. And hopefully, at the next briefing, we'll someone with us from the U.S. Navy who can definitively answer these questions.

QUESTION: Is there any chance of getting someone from the Navy to talk to us prior to the 8:30 briefing tonight.

HAMMERSCHMIDT: That's not my call. I -- no. In terms of a press-briefing situation, I don't see that occurring.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ... cause I couldn't hear whether you said the Independence had one, but if it does, I think there are three ROVs that are going to be used here.

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Let me look at my notes just to be sure. Yes, we have -- there are -- the Navy has told us that they will be three ROVs deployed on this mission, and one of which should be onboard the Kelly Chuest, which this morning, at about 8:30 was coming -- we saw it coming into port, and was to be put on the Sioux (ph) at some time today I believe.

So anyway, the to answer your question is three ROVs.

QUESTION: Are all the ROVs put on the boats, or do they bring them here they come in?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: I would really rather defer to the Navy on that. The one going on the Sioux I was told it's being flown in for use on that vessel.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) it was a cool fixtures (ph) provided that we'll show us -- I wonders whether that thing already came in with the both or whether it gets put on there later?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, what we're told is, one, it's on the Kelly Schuest is aboard.

QUESTION: Did any of them encourage you to continue the search?

COLLINS: There was -- of course our hearts and prayers remain with the family in the anguish that their feeling over this tragedy remains a great tragedy for those family, and I think you can just succumb some of the press clips I've seen on some of the reaction of local people in this area. That it's impacted the local population in terms of their sympathies to the families.

We, clearly, in that setting, there were expressions of desires, several desires, to keep search efforts going, and my -- again, my explanation to them about where and why the decision was very much as I expressed it to you. I was very candid to them, very frank to them about the search efforts and the realities of our search effort. I could do nothing else but do that.

So I -- yes, there was concern from families expressed by -- at that brief. I addressed those, explained the rationale for our decision, and again, although it's a tough decision anytime you suspend a search-and-rescue effort, it's not a decisions you look forward to making, but we feel that based on the circumstances that I have outlined, that it was the correct decision.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ... 60 families here in Los Angeles, and that you are now going to allow them to come here?

COLLINS: The location of families and so forth. There is -- I don't have the number. The National Transportation Safety Board and their family care program is the point staff for that, and there are families in Los Angeles at that -- and a constant dialogue being established with them, and I would defer your questions to the National Transportation Safety Board and the folks in L.A. They can give you a very detailed description of families, and their approaches and what they're doing.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ... come here to identify the bodies in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

COLLINS: I can't address those plans. Those things are being worked out between that staff, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the families. I don't know the details of those arrangements. That's their specialty area. That's their focus, and that kind of communication is going on with families. I might also state that not all families were in the Los Angeles area, and Dick and I did go down, obviously, and address those families there, but there is continuing efforts, right through this morning, by Alaska Airlines and the National Transportation Safety Board in L.A. to contact those families that weren't there or in transit. We've made available Coast Guard personnel in Los Angeles to those members that weren't on at the meeting last night. If they had questions relative to the search-and- rescue aspects of the case, they could talk to that Coast Guard member in Los Angeles. QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) crash site, family members?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Let Mr. Rodriguez address that.

DICK RODRIGUEZ, NTSB: With respect to the identification of the people and that sort of thing, that is the responsibility of the coroner of Ventura County. Our family affairs people work with that office, and -- but we are not responsible for that. That is an authoritative responsibility of the coroner, and he will be doing that coordination.

With respect to -- there was a question back over here.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) family members?

RODRIGUEZ: Oh the families -- the crash site is out in the ocean, and the family affairs group that we have assembled, in conjunction with Alaska Airline, is making arrangements for some suitable activity in that area.

I'm not privy to all the details. It's a dynamic situation. And you need to get ahold of our family affairs people and -- to get those kinds of details, or go through Alaska Airlines.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about the maintenance work done on the 13th?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Let me -- let me -- before the next question, let me mention, just while we've been fielding some questions here, let me announce that because of these questions that were asked about the salvage operation, that the U.S. Navy will be available this afternoon for a -- a background discussion on their operation. And you will need -- I don't know how that information is going to be distributed in terms of what time. But there will be some -- some information available on a briefing that will be held right here concerning the salvage operation, the assets involved. And any technical questions you might have would be better addressed at that time.

So...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE), a lot of people are going to be flying MD- 83s today. Should the traveling public be concerned about the safety of the aircraft, and should the federal government be doing more to ensure (OFF-MIKE)?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, we're here to investigate this particular accident, and to make some sweeping generalizations about that aircraft, it's not our preview here to get involved in that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) talk about the radio traffic that went on before the aircraft went down: How confident are you that it was the stabilizer mechanism? Do you have any confidence that this was the cause, or could there possibly be something, something else?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, we -- we of course were just collecting information and collecting evidence at this point, documenting that information and that evidence. And we'll continue to do so during this on-scene (UNINTELLIGIBLE) investigation.

We are far from pointing toward a particular cause of this accident. So I would suggest that these investigations typically are very long investigations.

An investigation of a major aviation accident such as this typically requires our agency approximately a year to complete.

And -- but I will add that if, importantly, that if there is any safety problem, any safety issue that surfaces at any time during this investigation, that we will address it expeditiously.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) of the pilot putting down in cities before Los Angeles: San Diego, Tijuana, further south perhaps?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Don't -- don't have that information:

QUESTION: In the radio traffic between ATC and the aircraft, was there a specific reference to either the trim status, the elevators, or simply to the stabilizers?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: I don't have that phraseology to give you a clear answer on that in terms of the information that we have seen.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) any of the tapes of the transcripts of what was said between the pilot and the air traffic controllers?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: I don't -- I'm not sure when that will be released. That will need to be fine-tuned. That an FAA transcript.

And so you have to understand that the FAA is a separate agency from the NTSB, and although we're in charge of this investigation, I just don't have a good answer for you on that.

QUESTION: Do you have any information on the (OFF-MIKE)?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, let's call this the last question. All that we have at this point is -- let me put it this way. I am told we have a lot of radar data in this investigation. And in terms of what we have here on scene, in terms of altitudes and positions and times, we don't have that information to distribute at this -- at this point in the investigation.

But in terms of the usefulness of that information to this investigation, I'm told that there is plenty of radar data.

So, that will be our last question.

ALLEN: And there you have it: the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board. The Coast Guard announcing that after searching 1,100 square miles of ocean, they have found no survivors from Alaska Airlines Flight 261. So they move into a support role, holding out no hope now that anyone survived this crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board takes the lead. They talked about the Navy. It's now going into high gear to begin the salvage operation: John Hammerschmidt of the NTSB saying that they will be getting more details about this investigation in a nighttime briefing. That will be at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

But he does have many, many investigators out on several fronts.

One report that the crew complained of destabilizer problems prior to landing in Mexico. That would be the flight before heading back into the United States: the ill-fated flight.

They'll be looking at audio tapes between the pilots and Alaska Airlines mechanics crews in Seattle.

They'll be talking with the air traffic controllers. As we just heard, there's a lot of radar data to go over.

They'll be interviewing witnesses. A few people saw this plane go down into the ocean, and they're still looking to recoverer the flight recorders. And there have been detections of pinging noises in the ocean. So, that could come at any time.

Let's go to CNN's Carl Rochelle, see what he can add to this news conference.

Carl, he is our aviation expert -- Carl.

ROCHELLE: Natalie, one of the things that struck me is we now know that apparently the crew that flew the plane to Puerto Vallarta before another crew took on and flew it back up, the crew that ultimately was flying the plane when it crashed, had some sort of mechanical difficulty, reported some sort of mechanical difficulty.

Now, Member Hammerschmidt was not willing to say at this point whether it was something to do with the horizontal stabilizer trim, but we suspect that's exactly what it was. And they have frozen that crew. They're going to talk with them.

Also, he says that the salvage ships may in fact be able to recover those black boxes this evening, sometime this evening. They're going to go out. They have three of the ROVs, and you'll that they are the devices with the camera and the arms. So they can actually pick up the black boxes if they are found. So they'll be out in the area. It's only 15 to 20 miles offshore. They'll be out during the day today and will begin looking. So possibly those will come over.

One significant rollover and change, Natalie, was changing this from a search-and-rescue operation to a search-and-recovery operation, meaning they've given up all hope of any survivors, Natalie.

ALLEN: All right, Carl Rochelle, at Port Hueneme in California, thank you.

We'll continue to follow further developments, of course. That's our program from Atlanta.

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