Aviation experts Saturday scrutinized the United Airlines jumbo jet that lost its cargo door 23,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, while ships and aircraft searched for debris and signs of the nine victims sucked out of the gaping hole in the fuselage to their deaths.
Nine passengers were blown out of the plane and at least 21 others were injured when a 10-by-40-foot hole ripped open around a cargo door shortly after Flight 811 took off with 354 people aboard bound for Auckland, New Zealand, early Friday.Federal investigators said they would not focus on any particular theory of what caused the disaster, although speculation from other authorities has concentrated on the possibility of structural failure.
"The doors are all completely wide open," Lee Dickinson of the National Transportation Safety Board told reporters at his headquarters at the Outrigger Prince Kuhio Hotel in Waikiki of the possible causes.
"We are proceeding as if we know nothing. We are starting at ground zero . . . collecting all information we possibly can. Our job is collect thorough, complete, and accurate information" for analysis in Washington, he said.
The safety board held an organizational meeting earlier Saturday attended by 70 to 100 people, including the 16 safety board personnel and other parties involved in the investigation, the FBI and bomb experts from the Federal Aviation Administration, United, Boeing, Pratt-Whitney engine company, and the airline pilots and flight attendants associations.
The operations group would cover the history of the flight. The survival factors group would document information from the cabin area and cockpit such as floor buckling and seat removal.
A sixth group would be formed in Washington to investigate the cockpit voice recorder/flight data recorder, hopefully by next week.
United Airlines spokesman William Speicher said he expects the plane will be fully repaired and put back into service unless federal authorities say otherwise.
The Coast Guard and Navy, meanwhile, resumed their search over a 1,000-square-mile area of the Pacific on the chance of locating the bodies of the nine passengers sucked out of the Boeing 747 when it ripped open less than 30 minutes after taking off early Friday.
The search 100 miles south of Oahu - which had turned up two airplane seats, a shoe, a 4-by-6-foot piece of metal and several emergency escape pamphlets usually found tucked into the back of seats - involved three cutters, the USS Coronado, three helicopters and a cargo plane.
Although officials said it was too early to rule out foul play, most experts, including law enforcement officials in Washington, agreed the incident aboard the 18-year-old jet was not the result of "an explosive tear."
Speculation centered on the possibility of a failed cargo door, a structural failure in the fuselage or the possibilility that an explosion in an engine had caused part of the engine to pierce the fuselage.
A number of the 336 passengers and 18 crew members aboard the jet reported hearing an explosion as the huge hole opened up around the cargo door 17 minutes into the flight.
The pilot, Capt. David Cronin, a 34-year United veteran, nursed the crippled jet the 100 miles back to Honolulu on two of its four engines after descending to 4,400 feet.
The hole follows the outline of the cargo door, extending from the baggage compartment up through the passenger area to the ceiling, Hawaii Department of Transportation spokeswoman Marilyn Kali said.
The Honolulu Medical examiner found grisly evidence that a body or bodies had been sucked into an engine on the right side of the aircraft. Dr. Mary Flynn said body frangments and pieces of clothing were recovered from the No. 3 engine, one of the two that failed.