Divers searching the wreckage of TWA Flight 800 have found the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, investigators said early today.
The boxes were found by a video-equipped Navy search and rescue vessel anchored over the largest concentration of wreckage, said Robert Francis, the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Divers were bringing the boxes to the surface and Francis said they would be flown immediately to Washington for examination. He did not say exactly where in the wreckage the boxes were found or their condition.
The recovery, coming one week after the crash, represented a major breakthrough in the quest to find out what caused the second-worst airline disaster in U.S. history.
Investigators expect the so-called black boxes - which are actually orange - to provide crucial evidence as to what caused the 747 to explode in a fireball and plunge into the Atlantic Ocean July 17, killing all 230 aboard.
The voice recorder picks up cockpit conversations and could indicate whether the crew knew if there was a problem before the crash and what action, if any, was taken to try to avoid the crash.
The flight data recorder picks up such information as a plane’s altitude, speed and various equipment functions. It could help determine whether a mechanical problem brought the plane down.
Until the discovery, the salvage effort was most notable for what it had not found. The FBI has not determined whether the jetliner was downed by a bomb, a missile or mechanical failure.
Victims’ relatives have been complaining bitterly about the pace of the search, and the White House said President Clinton would fly to New York today to meet them.
“We are not children,” said Joseph Lychner of Houston, who lost his 37-year-old wife, Pamela, and two young daughters in the crash.
“We have already lost everything we can possibly lose. We call upon the federal government, the governor’s office and everybody involved in this investigation to give us all the information that they have as soon as they get it, and do it now.”
“This is a political thing,” complained Michel Olivier, one of several relatives of French victims who urged the French government to send technical assistance. That offer was made, and turned down, said France’s counsel in New York, Patrick Gautrat.
Meantime, three more bodies were brought ashore earlier Wednesday. Of the 230 people who were killed, 116 bodies were still missing. Of the bodies recovered, 95 have been identified by the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s office.
Divers also believe they have spotted seven more bodies in the wreckage, said Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Working about 100 feet down Wednesday on a sandy ocean floor that puffs up silt when stepped on, about 75 Navy divers negotiated their way through wires and cables that hang over the wreckage like a spider web.
“Large aircraft have miles and miles of wires,” said Ray Downing, a supervisor of New York City Fire Department divers. “If it becomes loose, it floats.” On Tuesday, one diver had to cut himself free.
After relatives demanded to get more information about recovery efforts, Francis said investigators would now tell families first whenever bodies are recovered. Francis apologized for the sluggish flow of information and said he would begin holding briefings twice a day.
The search is now focused on an area about 1-1/2 miles long and a half mile wide, where a 60-by-30 foot piece of twisted fuselage thought to contain or cover dozens of bodies lies.
The Coast Guard, which had been searching a surface area about twice the size of Rhode Island, brought its vessels closer together to recover debris freed by divers that might float to the surface.
Late Tuesday and early Wednesday, the guard recovered about 200 pounds of plane parts from the surface, including seat cushions, sheet metal and insulation. Still, only 1 percent of the plane’s wreckage had been collected.
With a map of the ocean bottom sketched by sonar, the way was cleared for use of Navy “hard-hat” divers, who can stay down longer than scuba divers.
The arrival of a portable decompression chamber will also make the search safer, allowing immediate treatment of divers who suffer from decompression sickness or “the bends,” a painful, potentially fatal condition caused by the body’s absorption of nitrogen at deep-sea depths. Two divers were treated for the condition Tuesday.
The long series of funerals also continued Wednesday with a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City for Jill Ann Ziemkiewicz, a rookie flight attendant. Hundreds of family and friends attended.
In Montoursville, Pa., about 200 relatives and friends mourned Monica Cox, one of 21 French Club members and chaperones from the local high school who died. Six more ceremonies were planned by Sunday in the town of 5,000.
But Jeff Bohlin has yet to schedule a funeral for his 15-year-old daughter, Michelle, whose body has been identified but not returned.
“This was my daughter’s first plane ride,” he said.