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COCKPIT TAPE INDICATES FIRE JUST BEFORE CRASH

Just minutes after ValuJet's doomed Flight 592 took off from Miami someone opened the cockpit door and reported fire in the passenger cabin. Moments later the jet dived into the Everglades, killing all 110 aboard.

Investigators say it may be weeks before the sounds on the badly battered cockpit voice recorder can be fully analyzed, but they have released preliminary findings.About six minutes after the DC-9 took off from Miami International Airport, "It appears that the cockpit door opened (and) there were verbal indications from the cockpit that there was fire in the passenger cabin," National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Robert Francis said Monday.

The tape from the cockpit voice recorder, recovered from the Everglades muck Sunday, also contains "indications from the cabin that there were problems obtaining oxygen."

Francis offered no other details, saying the examination of the tape has just begun and the information on it is "very difficult to decipher at this point."

But the tape appears to back up other indications of fire in the cabin of the plane before the May 11 crash.

Investigators said Sunday they had found the aluminum frame of a passenger seat that was partially melted and heavily damaged by fire. Investigator Gregory Feith said it would take temperatures of at least 500 degrees to cause that type of damage.

Investigators also found a blackened support structure and smoke-damaged floor beams, both from inside the passenger cabin.

Before losing communication with air traffic controllers, the pilots had indicated with "a considerable sense of urgency" that there was smoke in the cockpit and in the passenger cabin, NTSB officials have said previously.

As a possible cause for the fire, attention has focused on 119 oxygen canisters that were being carried in the plane's front cargo hold. The canisters, which ValuJet was not authorized to carry as cargo, contain a volatile mix of chemicals used to provide oxygen to passenger emergency masks.

The aluminum casing for the magnetic recording tape was deeply gouged from hitting something upon impact, and it took several hours for NTSB officials, working through the night Sunday, to remove the 30-minute tape.

Francis said the tape was in good condition, but stressed that "it's not going to be a question of hours, but of days" before they can glean more information from it.

Representatives of the airline, the pilots' association, the Federal Aviation Administration, the NTSB and manufacturers must fully agree on the content before an official transcript can be made public, probably in several months.