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CNN Today

Alaska Airlines Flight 261: NTSB Officials Analyzing Flight Data Recorder; FBI Agents Join Investigation at Crash Site

Aired February 4, 2000 - 2:16 p.m. ET

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

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Now the latest on the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261: A memorial service is planned tomorrow at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. The plane's flight data recorder now is in the hands of NTSB investigators in Washington, and salvage vessels have located the plane's tail section on the ocean floor. That floor is under 650 feet of water, and bringing those pieces to the surface is going to be a delicate operation.

CNN's Carl Rochelle is in Port Hueneme, California where salvage teams are mapping out that underwater scene -- Carl.

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lou, that is exactly what they are doing. And, meanwhile, that flight data recorder that you mentioned, it flew to Washington overnight. It was scheduled to be read out in the National Transportation Safety Board labs during the day today. We hope to get a read on what it says sometime later on today here at the headquarters area where we're working with the National Transportation Safety Board.

The cockpit voice recorder was back on Wednesday. It was read out, they got a good read on the tapes inside, and Chairman Jim Hall told us that it gave them some sense of what the crew was trying to do during those final moments.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM HALL, NTSB CHAIRMAN: What we do know about the flight crews and their actions is that they were attempting throughout the entire flight sequence to regain control of the aircraft. So what you hear is two individuals working a problem very hard and trying to come up with a solution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROCHELLE: When that tape, which ran 30-minutes long, started, they were already trying to work on a problem with the horizontal stabilizer trim, a problem that continued until the plane went into the water. That is one of the reasons that it is so important for them to get to what we call the tail feathers, the horizontal stabilizer and the vertical stabilizer. They have located them.

The vertical stabilizer, the part that stands up straight that has the rudder on it, is easily identifiable on these planes because it has the picture of a face of an Eskimo on the tail. That is the logo of Alaska Airlines, and the crew that were working underwater saw that. They'll want that because the assembly that adjusts and controls that stabilizer trim is there. They'll also want to look at the cockpit because it has been determined that the American Airlines flight that had some problems with its stabilizer a couple of days ago had a short in a switch -- the trim switch on the copilot's side. They determined that that's what the problem is, so they'll want to look at that, too.

They are mapping, they are looking through the area now, and my colleague, Jim Hill, is standing by inside so he can see what is going on.

Jim, what do you see and what do you hear?

JIM HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carl, in addition to the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, NTSB, the FBI is now involved in the investigation. U.S. Coast Guard officials confirmed a short time ago that a team of agents was taken to the crash site about two miles behind me off Anacapa Island in the Santa Barbara Channel.

If we can take a look through our high-power lens now, you can see a small vessel which is a Coast Guard cutter; not too far from that, a larger vessel which is the USNS Independence, a salvage vessel.

About a half an hour ago or less, four of what we believe to be FBI agents were taken from the Coast Guard cutter and transferred over to the Independence where they're apparently conducting their investigation. We're also told that this does not necessarily mean there is anything suspicious in a criminal nature, that FBI involvement of this sort in any type of accident like this would be a routine matter.

Now, in terms of the Independence, which is the ship they're on right now, that ship has been anchored over the wreckage since last night. This is using an ROV, a remotely operated vehicle, called the drone, which is underwater in 650-700 feet doing a detailed mapping job of the wreckage. And, of course, that includes the all-important tail section.

So, at this point, apparently FBI agents, four of them we believe, on board that vessel right now.

I'm Jim Hill reporting live from Anacapa Island.

ROCHELLE: Jim, just one quick question: We know that FBI agents usually come in in a situation like that to try to help establish a chain of custody; in other words, to establish what parts were bought up and what time. Does that appear to be what they are doing?

HILL: Well, we haven't got any conversion -- we have no confirmation from the FBI as to what they their agents might be doing. But I talked to CNN's Charles Feldman a short time ago. He is frequently in touch with the FBI and he confirmed that it would not be unusual for just that kind of chain-of-evidence scenario to be unfolding here. So we're not to read too much into this, of course, and it may well be, as you say, and as Charles has indicated, a chain- of-custody matter that the FBI wants to make sure of the evidence in this case.

ROCHELLE: Jim Hill, thanks. No indication of any criminal activity in the case they're investigating. Problems with the trim and the horizontal stabilizer. The flight data recorder readout is being done. We hope to hear more of that here in this room at about 4:30 Eastern time today. We expect the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jim Hall, to be here, along with board member John Hammerschmidt, who has been in charge of this particular investigation, to give us details on that.

I'm Carl Rochelle, CNN, reporting live from Port Hueneme, California.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks to Carl and to Jim.

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