Investigators at the most difficult crash scene in memory probed inch-by-inch in inky water and Everglades muck and found the submerged engines of ValuJet Flight 592. They also found pitifully disintegrated remains of victims.
But exactly how to remove the wreckage from the alligator- and snake-infested swamp remained as uncertain as the cause of smoke that filled the cockpit and cabin before Saturday's crash, which killed all 109 aboard.Federal regulators Monday began an intensive review of ValuJet's practices, stepping up safety efforts that had been under way since earlier this year. And the price of stock in the 3-year-old airline was down sharply.
At a midday briefing, officials said recovery workers had filled three body bags with human remains, the largest part so far a knee.
"I don't hold any hope we'll find any recoverable large parts of people," retired Dade County Medical Examiner Joseph Davis told reporters. Davis, who is helping with the investigation, said it could take up to a week to identify victims and that some might never be identified.
Among ideas being considered to clear the remote site were draining a portion of the swamp or extending a dike. But officials from the various agencies involved were "nowhere near a consensus," said Robert Francis, National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman.
"Given the environment out in the swamp there, with the mud and the water particularly, the combination, it is very, very tough to figure out how we're going to get the aircraft out," Francis said Sunday night.
Some family members have asked to visit the crash site, but no decision had been made late Monday morning. Frustrations were mounting.
"They should have had a crane or a radar or something. They've got that kind of equipment," said Raquel Perry, daughter-in-law of crash victim Wilhemina Perry of Miami.
"By the time they get out there with those alligators and stuff, she'll be all ate up," she said.
The grim task proceeded in an eerie, surreal atmosphere, as the vast Everglades seemed to have swallowed the plane. Even at the spot where the aircraft pierced the water, divers literally groped for clues.
"They're down to less than an inch as far as underwater visibility. A lot of it is being done by feel," said NTSB investigator Greg Feith.
The New York Times quoted a detective as saying searchers prodding with poles located what may be a segment of the plane's fuselage. Officials would not confirm the report.
NTSB officials said a fragment 8 feet long was the largest they had seen. Both engines
were found in about 2 feet of water, the NTSB said.
Francis said much of the wreckage found so far is painted blue, which is the color ValuJet paints the rear of its planes. The rear is where the flight data and cockpit voice recorders are located.
The water ranged from 6 inches to 5 feet deep. Beneath that was muck that some locals say can be 30 to 40 feet deep.
Navy divers, specialists in underwater salvage recovery, were bringing sonar equipment with which officials hope they will locate the data recorders.
Senior NTSB investigators with hundreds of crash investigations behind them called the site, far from roads and accessible only by airboats, "the most difficult scene that they have ever encountered," Francis said.
Divers had to be concerned with getting snagged in wreckage, and alligators and deadly water moccasins are common in the swamp.
Mosquitoes and heat in the mid-80s also plagued recovery workers, prompting Howard and Gloria Sexton to launch a small relief effort. The couple drove from their home in Boca Raton with a van load of donated insect repellent, bottled water and candy bars for the workers.
"I grew up in a town where everybody took care of everybody else," Howard Sexton explained.
The swamp yielded pieces of clothing Sunday, in addition to a family photo album and a floating airplane seat that were found Saturday.
Clearer pictures of the passengers also emerged Sunday: a Baptist church organist and his wife on a dream vacation, a young man preparing for missionary work in his native Venezuela, a mother and her daughter who had become "real friends" in recent years.
Also among the victims were San Diego Chargers running back Rodney Culver and his wife, Karen, of Woodstock, Ga.
Flight 592 took off Saturday afternoon en route to Atlanta, but the crew soon reported smoke in the cockpit and cabin and asked to turn back. The tape of the conversation with the air traffic controller showed that the pilot felt "a considerable sense of urgency," Francis said. The plane crashed about 15 miles northwest of Miami International Airport.
The source of the cockpit smoke was unknown.
Roger Kubeck, whose wife, Candalyn, was the plane's pilot, said he thinks the crew was unconscious by the time the plane plunged into the swamp.