Buried 15 days in the Everglades muck, the cockpit voice recorder that could help explain the fiery end of ValuJet Flight 592 was discovered after a searcher gave a prayer and a poke.
"I said, `God, so far I've just prayed for you to keep everyone safe out here and I haven't asked for your help finding anything. Now I'm asking you to help us find this recorder,' " Metro-Dade Sgt. Felix Jimenez said Sunday."The next time I put my probe into the water, it hit the recorder."
Finding the voice recorder has been a top priority since the DC-9 crashed May 11, killing all 110 people on board. In past accidents recorders have helped provide conclusive evidence about the events leading up to a crash.
"We want to know what happened in the cockpit, the last moment. We are hopeful that the conversation the pilot and other sound will give us important clues," said National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Mike Benson.
The toolbox-size recorder, found about 150 feet from where the flight data recorder was found May 13, was shipped to NTSB headquarters in Washington late Sunday in a water-filled cooler to keep the tapes from drying out.
The outer case holding the recorder showed impact damage but no fire damage, Benson said after the box arrived in Washington. The recorder itself looked "still sound and in good shape."
Investigators, however, couldn't tell if the recordings will be usable after being in the muddy water for so long.
Because of the Memorial Day holiday, it was unclear when analysis of the tapes would start, Benson said. NTSB Vice Chairman Robert Francis told ABC's "Good Morning America" Monday that "I'm sure folks have been working on it overnight, but I haven't yet been briefed on that."
Alan Pollock, an NTSB spokesman, reached at home on the holiday, said he didn't have any information.
Other taped conversations between the crew and air-traffic controllers indicate the pilots knew there was smoke in the cockpit and cabin and that they were unable to locate the plane or the nearest airport on radar. The tapes, however, are at times unclear and end 50 seconds before the jet nose-dived into the swamp.
And while the other black box, the flight data recorder, provided information on the speed, altitude and wing positions of the aircraft, it shed little light on what exactly caused the crash.
"There may have been a phone call or an intercom call from one of the cabin crew with some other background noise," Greg Feith, lead investigator for the NTSB, said of the voice recorder.
In another development, investigators found the aluminum frame of a passenger seat that was partially melted and heavily damaged by fire - the first indication that flames had reached into the cabin. It would take temperatures of at least 500 degrees to cause that type of damage, Feith said.
Previously, investigators said only part of a stairwell underneath the cockpit and a circuit breaker panel in the cabin showed signs of intense heat damage, though other areas showed soot damage.
Investigators also found a blackened support structure and smoke-damaged floor beams, both from inside the passenger cabin.
Investigators have focused on the possibility that the fire was caused by oxygen canisters in the plane's front cargo hold underneath the cabin. ValuJet was not authorized to carry the 119 canisters, which contain a volatile mix of chemicals used to provide oxygen to passenger emergency masks.
None of the canisters had safety caps on, and at least two end caps found inside a tire from the front cargo hold were heat damaged.
So far, about 35 percent to 40 percent of the aircraft has been found.
Investigators are using the aircraft debris to reconstruct the forward part of the cargo hold and to find the pattern of the smoke - and the effect of both fire and smoke on flight controls, the electronics of the aircraft and the work of the crew. Feith said the flight control cables "do not exhibit actual fire or burn-through."
Investigators also plan to try to re-create what may have happened by igniting oxygen canisters in a mock cargo hold, Feith said.