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NTSB Investigators Hold Press Conference

Aired October 26, 2002 - 16:02   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we are going to take you to Eveleth, Minnesota now where the National Transportation Safety Board is holding a press conference, talking about the plane crash that killed Senator Paul Wellstone.

CAROL CARMODY, NTSB ACTING CHAIRWOMAN: Thank you, good afternoon. I'd like to introduce also to the audience Mr. Bob Benson (ph), who is the investigator in charge of this accident. He's in charge of our technical team, which is 16 strong. Let me start by reiterating what I hope I always say when I give a briefing, which is that the NTSB certainly at this stage is in the facts only business. We're going to tell you what we have found, what we have observed. I am not going to interpret it. I'm not going to analyze it and I'm not to speculate. That is way too early.

The analysis stage and the findings and the cause and determination will come much later. So, I'm going to be just the facts and I hope you will understand that. Sure, is that better? It is that better? Okay. Can you hear me now? Good. This is probably a tired voice because I've been up since four o'clock my time from Washington. We went out this morning the whole team very early to the site. Some actually got there at daybreak and others of us went a little bit later 8:30 or so.

We went out to the command post and the aircraft accident site is about half a mile beyond the command post. It is extremely difficult to get there, and I'm grateful to the St. Louis County for their vehicles. They have vehicles which are like tanks, and we had to ride the tanks in groups out there. It's very marshy, very wet terrain. The tanks have to take a different path each time so they don't sink in. A couple of them got stuck this afternoon and people had to get out and walk. It's a tough trip and it makes getting equipment and people and things out there difficult. We all walked out with a shovel apiece just because we had to help get to the gear out there. So, it's made logistics complicated but again, I'm grateful to the county folks for helping us with that.

The area of the impact is fairly small. It's marked off at 300 feet by about 190. This doesn't mean there's nothing beyond that perimeter. We certainly intend to look beyond the perimeter but that is where the major portion of the aircraft is. There is evidence of an intense post-crash fire. The fuselage is destroyed. The cockpit is gone. The left-wing is badly burned. The right wing is quite damaged. The tail is about two-thirds intact. I sure will. I'm sorry if I'm going to fast. I said there was evidence of extreme post-crash fire. The fuselage was destroyed. The cockpit was gone. The left wing was badly burned. The right wing was damaged considerably, and the tail was about two-thirds intact.

We had said last night we were looking for the CVR and we started to do that this morning, but we learned today from the FAA and the operator, that the CVR was not required on this aircraft for this operator and, therefore, it was not installed. So, there is no CVR. This is consistent with the FAA regulations. We intend to map the wreckage and we have some help from the county folks and the FBI in helping us do that. We have identified all the various angles, all the four corners of the plane as we call it.

QUESTION: You're talking cockpit voice recorder?

CARMODY: A CVR is the Cockpit Voice Recorder.

QUESTION: There was no Flight Data Recorder?

CARMODY: That's correct, there is no Flight Data Recorder and there is no Cockpit Voice Recorder. We looked at the damage to the trees, what we call the strike damage to the trees. About 150 feet out from the accident site, we started seeing damage to the trees, and we were able to take, thanks to the county, a helicopter ride and oversee the site and it gave us some clues about the angle of descent. The aircraft was not aligned with the runway center. It appears to be headed south and it was about 90 degrees off what would be a routine approach. We don't know why this is. We will try and find out but it was off.

The angle was steeper than would be expected in a normal standardized, stabilized approach. The engines are both there. We'll be removing those and looking at them intensively. Both engines show some blade damage, which suggests that they were powered when they hit the ground. We don't know to what extent, but they appear to be operating when they hit the ground. We have a specialist down at the FAA Center went down this morning about 200 miles from here I understand, to look at the radar tapes, to talk controllers, to get the briefings that the pilot may have been given.

The weather expert is in touch with the Duluth National Weather Service and also went to the airport, I believe to get what's called the AWOS, which is Automated Weather Observation Station, the data. What we're trying to do with this is chart exactly what conditions were yesterday at the time of the accident. We need to see exactly what were the atmospherics and what was going on. This will help us determine what the situation was. Let me finish my statement and then we'll go back for questions.

We've started interviewing witnesses. We talked to one today which was of interest. He was at the end of Botus Road (ph), which is near the command center. He was about two and a half miles from the accident site. He's a man who hears aircraft going over all the time. He heard this aircraft as he was watching television and thought to himself it seemed louder than usual. He looked out the window and says that he looked up and saw the bottom and the two wings going by. He estimates it was about 95 feet over his house. He said also it was, and this was his word, crabbing to the right. If you know how crabs move, they kind of go forward and sideways at the same time and that was his description, crabbing to the right.

He went back to watching television and within a minute, less than a minute, he heard an impact, felt an impact and heard what he called a loud shot. He thought it might have been a rifle or something, didn't know what was, figured it out later that it probably was connected with the crash. We intend to have a progress meeting with all the parties and all the participants tonight at 6:00. People will report on what they have been doing today, what they have found, what they've investigated, and we may have some more information then. It's not clear that we will or not.

I mentioned last night who the parties to the investigation are and I'll just mention that once again. It is of course the FAA, it's Raytheon who is the manufacturer of the plane. It is the owner and operator of the charter, which is Aviation Charters, Incorporated, I believe, a local firm and Pratt Whitney (ph) of Canada who made the engines. We may possibly add another party with Hartsell (ph) propellers, I'm not sure if they'll be here tonight or not, but it was Hartsell propellers that were on the aircraft. And, we expect to be onsite for several more days at least. We are thinking of the possibility of a press pool going out to the site as soon as the investigators tell us that it's appropriate to do that. We will try and arrange that for you, so we'll be in touch with you on that as well. Let me take a few questions now.

QUESTION: Can you tell us the status of recovering the remains, where does that stand and where are the remains headed?

CARMODY: The medical examiner was working their most of today. I believe he's completed the removal of all of the remains and he is doing the postmortems on them. I understand he expects to complete the postmortems tomorrow, possibly tomorrow afternoon.

QUESTION: Do you know where?

CARMODY: I don't know. I would assume the medical examiner, if he has an office, or I don't know.

QUESTION: Can you tell us why the discrepancy last night? You were here and you told us you believed that there was a Flight Voice Recorder. Now we know that there wasn't. Any reason?

CARMODY: Well, two things. First of all, we were told that there was a CVR. On this type of aircraft, there could have been or there could not have been. It really is dependent on the regulation and type of operator. It's a fairly complicated regulation.

QUESTION: How far back does that set the investigation without one?

CARMODY: Well, we don't know since we don't know what might have been on it. Of course, we'd have liked to have had it, absolutely.

QUESTION: Was the airplane pointed toward or away from the airport?

CARMODY: Away. It was headed in a southerly direction about 90 degrees.

QUESTION: And, are you able to tell whether the de-icers were operating at the time of the crash or don't you know that yet?

CARMODY: We're not able to know that yet. That's certainly something we want to know.

QUESTION: Carol, the impact, would you say it was more of a flat or pancaked as opposed to diving in as you might expect in a storm?

CARMODY: I wouldn't characterize it except to say it was steeper than normal and looking at the trees, it was coming in at an angle.

QUESTION: Is there a suggestion that he was actually trying to land at that point, or?

CARMODY: I'd be speculating and I'm not doing that. We have no information to indicate that.

QUESTION: Ms. Carmody, do you know how long it roughly it might take to get information from the medical examiner as to the cause of death of the victims, impact, fire?

CARMODY: I would expect if he's completed his work this weekend, we would know soon.

QUESTION: Were all the victims found inside the fuselage?

CARMODY: I'm not sure I know the answer to that. I think most were. I'm not sure that I have that information, so I'll have to defer.

QUESTION: Can you describe the terrain, what it looked like?

CARMODY: Well, as I said, very marshy, very muddy, a lot of bogs. The site itself was on slightly elevated land, so that was dry and it was not difficult walking around once you got to the site, a lot of trees, a great many trees, a lot of underbrush.

QUESTION: Can you talk again how the plane was oriented? You're saying the nose was pointed away from the approach the airport?

CARMODY: We said it was not on a line with the runway center line. It appeared to be about 90 degrees going to the south.

QUESTION: Was the front of the plane pointed toward the runway?

CARMODY: No, the plane was headed 90 degrees south.

QUESTION: Last night, Agent McCabe from the FBI said that there was no suggestion of, or he had no intelligence or indication that it was a terrorist activity. Is that being ruled out at this point? CARMODY: Agent McCabe told me the same thing last night because I met with him when I got here. He said they had no intelligence to suggest that and they saw nothing in the wreckage to suggest that.



QUESTION: Is that something you can rule out now?

QUESTION: Have you been in touch with the campaign or the Wellstone family?

CARMODY: Oh, yes, oh, yes. I've talked with the families before I came down here. Wait, one at a time please.

QUESTION: Were the family members (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?


QUESTION: What we understand at least one member of the Wellstone family, one of the sons was onsite last night?

CARMODY: I understand he was. He visited with the sheriff.

QUESTION: And what, if any, arrangements might be made for other relatives to go to the site?

CARMODY: I talked to them, as I said, this afternoon and made the offer. We will certainly set that up for them and we discussed sometime tomorrow. We have to confirm that with the families. It really is a scheduling issue, but we have made the offer and any of them who wish to go will get there.

QUESTION: What's the name of the witness?

CARMODY: Oh, I couldn't give that. I don't know it personally, and I don't think I'd give it out if I did.

QUESTION: Carol, have you had the maintenance records of this plane?

CARMODY: Oh, that's part of it.

QUESTION: My understanding is it may be over the last two years, and also a technical question. I'm not sure if I got the right name for it. It's the non-directional beacon. My understanding is there may be a beacon at the airport that guides planes in. What do you know about that beacon and what do you know about whether it was operational at the time of the crash?

CARMODY: Well, that's something we'll be looking at. I believe it's a VORDME and we'll be looking at that system. We have not got that information yet.

QUESTION: Do you have maintenance records? CARMODY: We'll be looking at those. That's a standard part of any investigation like this, certainly.

QUESTION: It may be preliminary but did anything strike you immediately when you got on to the scene that perhaps it might tell you something? Any immediate reactions to what you saw?

CARMODY: No. Again, I wouldn't choose to speculate on that. It's a very small area of impact and it was very badly burned. Those were the two things I couldn't help but notice.

QUESTION: Do you have a more exact measurement as far as how far the plane was from the airport?

CARMODY: No. No, I don't.


CARMODY: We said about two and a half miles but that is a guesstimate. I mean it's fairly imprecise. We'll have that more precisely later.

QUESTION: And yesterday we were told that there was no distress call or indication from the airplane at all there was anything amiss. Is that true?

CARMODY: We're trying to confirm that now. We're trying to get the information from controllers and see if there are any tapes available, so I don't know.

QUESTION: But you're not aware of any distress calls?

CARMODY: We don't have any information on it at this time.

QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit about why family members might want to go to the crash? Is it a kind of feeling or give them closure or why would that be a good thing to let them do?

CARMODY: Well, we have found through the sad experience we've had with accidents through the years that family members do like to go and see where their loved ones died. It gives them a sort of closure. It gives them a degree of peace. It's a difficult thing to do. It's very difficult but most of them find it useful and most of them want to go, so for those who want to go we make it possible and we always do it as soon as we reasonably can do so.

QUESTION: Any talk of other dignitaries going from the state, the governor or other?

CARMODY: I've heard from no one. I have heard from no one, so that's always a possibility but it hasn't come up yet.

QUESTION: How far back does that kind of pace set the investigation? My understanding is that the investigators literally, with family visits, have to step back from the accident scene and it would stall the investigation for at least some period of time. CARMODY: Well, I don't know that I would agree with that. Our investigators will be on scene tomorrow working and if family members come, the work will continue. So, I wouldn't say that would set us back, no.

QUESTION: Can we go back to the plane a minute? You said the angle was steeper than normal?

CARMODY: Steeper than we'd expect in a normal stabilized descent or approach.

QUESTION: And you said that the blade damage indicated that they were powered when they hit the ground.

CARMODY: The engines, yes the two engines, just from a preliminary look.

QUESTION: There was not engine failure?

CARMODY: I wouldn't speculate on that because that's a conclusion, but it does indicate the engines were powered when they hit the ground. We don't know to what degree but they appear to have been operating when they hit the ground.

QUESTION: Have the engines been removed from the scene yet?

CARMODY: Not yet. We'll have to take them off and tear them down and see what evidence there may be of any problems, if any. One at a time.

QUESTION: Anything to suggest an icing problem?

CARMODY: I couldn't say at this point. I really couldn't.

QUESTION: Is there any way that you could actually determine that as a point of fact, given fire (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

CARMODY: We're going to have to get more data on the weather and see what the situation looks like. I think we're getting repetitive here. I'll take one more and then.

QUESTION: Has it been determined or are you able to determine how fast the plane was going when it crashed?

CARMODY: At some point, we'll have that information. I don't have it now but we will be able to get that.

QUESTION: What is the time line for the investigation?

CARMODY: The time line for the investigation?

QUESTION: When might you know what happened?

CARMODY: Well, it will be a while. We'll be on scene for at least three or four or five more days. Then we go back to Washington with the data we have and go through extensive analysis. It's going to be a matter of months.

QUESTION: Carol, can you tell us if this particular type plane has been prone to any kind of specific problem?

CARMODY: I asked that question and the answer is there's nothing in evidence that we know of. Nothing jumps out.

QUESTION: Will your investigation include the validity of the pilot and the crew?

CARMODY: Oh, of course. Oh, yes. Yes. We look at the pilot's records, their training, their history. That's all part of it, absolutely. We haven't done it yet. We're doing it. It's again part of the investigation but that is a key part certainly.

QUESTION: Maybe one more about the angle, with the steep angle of the plane when it crashed, are you able to tell yet whether it crashed, flipped over or nose down and then broke apart by the positioning of the fuselage?

CARMODY: Can't tell. No, can't tell.

QUESTION: And by the damage of the trees, can you describe that any further in terms of whether they were sheared off and to what degree around the small impact area?

CARMODY: Well, you could just see from the helicopter the trees. There were some that were damaged and then more damage and more. It was sort of a plane, if you will. I don't mean to use that word twice but it was -- some of the trees were damaged up high and then it got lower and lower as you get down to the site. So, something, whether it was the aircraft or the propeller, something had struck the trees and that's something we have to look at very carefully.

QUESTION: Roughly, how far out from the road is the wreckage?

CARMODY: About a half a mile. The control station is on Bodus Road and it's about half a mile in from there.

QUESTION: By taking the helicopter up in the air, were you looking for something specific or just hoping to get an aerial view of the site?

CARMODY: Well, several people took the helicopter ride and there were pictures taken and aerial pictures. We wanted, our investigators wanted to see what the tree damage was and what the angles were and what the orientation of the wreckage was with respect to the runway to get some idea of the direction. So, it was extremely useful. Thank you. We will anticipate another press briefing tomorrow and we'll certainly keep you informed and we will let you know when we're able to clear a press pool at the site. Thank you.

COLLINS: All right, you've been watching a news conference with the acting Chairperson Carol Carmody of the National Transportation Safety Board on the plane crash that killed Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. Again, that was in Eveleth, Minnesota. Giving you some details, a quick recap the thing that she said stood out to her with this crash site was the intense fire after the crash and also the small area of impact. She had described 300 feet by 190 feet. To her, the impact area is very, very small. You see there on the map where Eveleth, Minnesota is, 170 miles or so from Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Let's go ahead and bring in Greg Feith. He's a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator, lead investigator I should say, has had lots and lots of experience. Greg, I want to ask you first, I know you worked on Value Jet, obviously a much, much larger plane, but the conditions there in relation to the conditions here, she's talking about heavy marsh area, very difficult for the investigators to get to to learn more about this crash. Tell us a little bit about that.

GREG FEITH, FMR. SR. NTSB INVESTIGATOR: Most definitely, Heidi. With this type of accident site, where it's marshy, where there are a lot of trees and it's very inaccessible, it's hard for investigators to really get in there and look at the wreckage, manipulate the wreckage to do any kind of formal examination out there. So, a lot of that wreckage will be removed from the accident site and brought to a place where further examination could be done. The best the investigators can do out there is document positions of flight controls that have survived the fire, the wreckage as a whole, and then move it and do further examination, more intricate examination in a more sterile area.

COLLINS: And so, then what do they have to work with? We heard the fuselage was destroyed, the cockpit was gone, both wings damaged, the tail about two-thirds intact, no CVR, Cockpit Voice Recorder, no FDR, Flight Data Recorder, but not required by the FAA on this plane, the King Air A-100. So what are they going to have? What would be the next step for them to really look at?

FEITH: When you look at it from a forensic standpoint, there is still a lot of evidence out there, even though the airplane was involved in a post crash fire. A lot of the instruments will survive, depending on the intensity of the fire. So, they can still probably get some good indications from some of the instruments, from the pilot and copilot side of the panels. They can also look at the flight controls. They can determine flight control continuity to make sure that the airplane, there was no mechanical malfunction or failure of the air frame system itself. Now, one of the big concerns that the investigators will have, of course, is the fact that this airplane was flying in weather that was conducive to ice and so they'll want to look at the de-ice system on this airplane if they can and make a determination whether it was operable or not.

COLLINS: And this particular aircraft does have its own de-icing but my understanding is that sometimes the icing is so bad that it isn't enough. You just can't get rid of it.

FEITH: Exactly. This particular de-icing system on this airplane is like a balloon. You take the deflated balloon and you stretch it across the leading edge of the wing and the tail. The ice is allowed to build up on the leading edge of the wing and then when you have a sufficient buildup, the pilots are monitoring this. When you have a sufficient buildup, then you inflate that boot. It cracks the ice and relieves it from that boot and clears it from the airplane.

However, when we have freezing rain and freezing drizzle type conditions, and that's what I understand some of the conditions were up there, that's an extreme case where this is now a different type of icing because it runs beyond the leading edge. And, an accident that I invested on October 31 of 1994 was the American Eagle ATR-72 that crashed in Rosland, Indiana. That airplane accident was attributed to a buildup of ice as a result from flying in freezing rain and freezing drizzle.

COLLINS: Greg, what do you make of the impact area being so small and this fire that was very, very intense after the crash?

FEITH: Well, when you look at the size of the accident site, the fact that it is very small and very contained and, as the chairman said, the airplane entered into a very steep attitude or rate of descent and was confined to a very small area, which indicates that there is no horizontal movement or very little horizontal movement. Everything is compacted, and because of that very short or very narrow accident site, all of the fuel that was on that airplane is then pulled, and a lot of time if it's in a cove or a gully-type arrangement or very confined by this marshy area, that fuel is going to pool and once it's set fire, it's going to burn anything that it's on. So unfortunately, that airplane probably sat in a pool of fuel and burned for a substantial period of time.

COLLINS: And a couple more weather questions for you. I want to talk a little bit about these charter aircraft and the flights that they take. Of course, these guys go and plan their flight. They do some flight planning. They have their maps. Apparently, this particular pilot had been flying for many, many years on the charter type aircraft. The National Weather Service in Duluth had provided the weather information for them. What do they normally get out of that and then talk to me about the decisions that the pilot and his copilot had to make based on that weather information that they got.

FEITH: Typically, when a pilot will call either the weather service or the flight service station, they're going to get a complete briefing from their initial departure point to their arrival point, and what they want to do is find out what the weather is going to be like, not only at their arrival point to determine if they can execute an instrument approach if the weather is bad enough but also they want to know what's going to happen en route.

Because if they are going to have an encounter with significant winds, turbulence, icing conditions in this particular instant, they have to know that because that all has to be factored into the decision on not only flight planning, as far as a route is concerned but what altitude they're going to fly at and if they are going to successfully be able to complete this flight under the regulations that they're operating because each set of regulations, whether it's Part 91, which is general operating regulations, or Part 135 for commercial carriers such as this charter group, or 121 which the large major carriers operate under.

There's a different set of standards that these pilots need to take into account in their decision-making when they're planning their flights, and so what the investigation is going to look for is what kind of information was provided to this crew and used in their decision-making to try and attempt this flight.

COLLINS: All right, Greg Feith, we do appreciate it, a former National Transportation Safety Board lead investigator. Thank you so much.

FEITH: You're welcome.

COLLINS: We will hear a lot more about this. Investigators say they'll be on the scene for several more days. In fact, we do have Susan Candiotti. She is also on the scene in Eveleth, Minnesota. I want to check in with her about what she had learned, hi Susan.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Heidi. Indeed, they are working under very difficult conditions. I was out near the site because we can't get up close to it. It's very cold out there. You heard it described as a very marshy area and, in fact, another investigator who saw it up close described it as like a big fire pit. You heard that the cockpit was destroyed, large portions of the fuselage, and so investigators have a lot of work on their hands to determine just exactly what kind of a steep angle the plane came in on, what the weather conditions were at the time, and precisely what caused the plane to go down.

We did learn this day that by now, by late this afternoon, all of the victims, all eight of them have been removed from the scene and have been taken to local funeral homes. It is up the medical examiner to determine the exact cause of death and then to decide exactly when and where the victims will be taken for funerals -- Heidi.

COLLINS: All right, Susan Candiotti, we do appreciate your perspective there from Eveleth, Minnesota.


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