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Pilot error focus in Guam crash

Investigators say no engine failure

Latest developments:

AGANA, Guam (CNN) -- As the first injured survivors from the Korean Air crash on Guam returned home on Friday, investigators focused on whether the pilot steered into a rocky hillside thinking he was landing on the airport runway.

But Korean Air angrily denied pilot error was to blame for the crash of Flight 801. It again blamed bad weather and equipment at the airport in Agana, the capital of the U.S.-governed Pacific island.

Animation of the path of Flight 801
video icon 294K/6 sec. QuickTime movie (240x180)
501K/6 sec. QuickTime movie(320x240)

The Boeing 747 was carrying 254 passengers when it crashed into the dense jungle early Wednesday morning three miles (five kilometers) southwest of the airport. At least 225 people died.

U.S. investigators said on Friday they had recovered half of the bodies.

One of at least 27 survivors, 11-year-old Rika Matsuda, her small face bruised and puffy, visited a hill near the wreckage Friday to lay a bouquet of yellow flowers in memory of her mother, who died in the crash.

Later, Buddhist monks in orange and black robes led a memorial service on the hill. About 50 mourners, mostly relatives, bowed their heads and wept quietly as the monks chanted prayers, rang chimes and burned incense.


Landing too soon?

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said in Guam on Friday the 747 did not suffer any engine or structural failure before the crash. They also said the crew apparently was unaware of any problem as the aircraft approached the airport.

Separately, in Washington, the NTSB is studying the Korean Air jet's voice and flight data recorders -- the so-called "black boxes" -- which were recovered intact from the wreckage.

Investigators want to know if the pilot had complete control over the plane and simply tried to land in the wrong place. Did he, for example:

  • Miscalculate the approach to the runway, homing in on a landing guidance beacon on the hilltop where the crash occurred, mistakenly believing he was actually homed in on the runway?
  • Lower the landing gear too soon, disabling an alarm system that would have warned him the plane was too close to the ground?

"It's my understanding that there was a ground proximity warning of some sort," George Black, leader of the NTSB team investigating the crash, told CNN.

He called "pure speculation" media reports that officials had tentatively concluded pilot error was to blame. "Those reports are ... based on things that we have not even looked at," Black said.

The pilot was among those who died in the crash, and NTSB officials were looking into his condition before the flight.

A South Korean newspaper reported Thursday that the pilot had clocked too many hours and was fatigued, a claim denied by Korean Air Vice President Shim Yi-taek. Shim also objected to speculation pointing toward pilot error as a cause of the crash.

Injured survivors flown to Seoul

The Korean Air flight was carrying mostly South Korean tourists, including many families heading to Guam's tropical beaches for vacation.

Eight crash survivors on stretchers were flown to the South Korean capital of Seoul on Thursday night aboard a U.S. military C-9 Nightingale hospital plane. They were taken to four hospitals.

Another 12 survivors, all with minor burns, were flown to Seoul on Friday.

A mother's grief

The name Tiffany Kang does not appear in the survivor list. The eight-year-old California girl was one of 11 people from her family traveling on Flight 801.

vxtreme A mother mourns the loss of her daughter

Her grieving mother, Kelly, unwilling to acknowledge the loss, wandered the crash site on Thursday, shouting her daughter's name.

"Tiffany, Tiffany. Let me see you. Your mommy's here. Can you hear me?"

But no one answers.

Correspondent Tom Mintier and Reuters contributed to this report.

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