Two people killed in a freak accident on a Delta Air Lines jet were sitting near the rear of the plane. So is it safer to sit toward the middle? Yes, says one expert. No, says another.

"The safest part of the airplane to sit is wherever something doesn't go wrong," said Mike Overly, editor of Aviation Safety Monitor. "There's not a much better way to say it."Aviation experts have long disagreed over whether it is safer to sit toward the middle of the plane or toward the rear - or whether it makes any difference at all.

"No place in the plane is any safer than any other," said Robert DiVito, director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

Surviving an airline accident generally has more to do with the nature of the event than the seat assignments.

If a plane crashes nose first, the passengers towards the rear may have a better chance of surviving. But if the plane crashes while taking off, it can strike tail first.

In addition, some planes have engines mounted at the rear, while others have the engines mounted at the wings. Their placement affects the layout of fuel lines through the aircraft and the susceptibility of certain areas to fire.

What experts have learned from probing crashes is that survivability isn't predictable.

In a July 1989 United Airlines crash in Sioux City, Iowa, 184 of the 296 passengers on board survived. But it was a combination of remarkable events, and not a seating chart, that saved lives.

The DC-10, which had lost its hydraulic system, hit the runway wing first and cartwheeled. The aircraft's nose and tail took the force of the crash. The wings, which contain the fuel tanks, broke off in the crash, and so the fire burned a critical distance from the midsection.

The cockpit crew was spared, but many in the first-class section just behind were killed. Some passengers in the front coach section survived.

In the end, the seating chart "was a patchwork of the dead and survivors," Overly said.

"It's very hard to give advice on this," said Wayne Williams, who headed the now-defunct National Transportation Safety Foundation. "All I can say is what I do."

Here's what some experts prefer:

-Williams prefers to sit near the tail of the plane.

Examining various crashes, he said, "The one thing that began sticking in my mind pretty early was the one biggest piece you always saw was the tail."

Although structurally the wing section is the strongest part of an aircraft, it contains the fuel tanks, making it more prone to fires.

-Michael Barr, director of the aviation safety education program at the University of Southern California, said he prefers to sit on the aisle near an exit row in the middle of the airplane.

Sitting near an aisle means a more direct route to whichever exit isn't blocked.

-Overly said he generally requests an aisle. "Otherwise, I sit where I'm told."

The experts all agreed that Saturday's accident involving Delta Flight 1288 was a fluke. An engine mounted near the tail of the MD-88 blew apart while the plane was taxiing down the runway for takeoff. Flying pieces of metal ripped a gash about a foot wide and more than 4 feet long across the side of the plane, killing a mother and her son.

"It's very unusual," Barr said. "Engines are designed to completely absorb debris when you have an internal malfunction like that."

All in all, flight safety comes down to a matter of luck and some basic preparation.

"Listen to the safety briefing. Look at the card. Make sure you know where the exits are and how you operate them," Williams said. "Be aware that you have a responsibility for your own safety."