May 13, 1996 in Nation/World

Swamp Swallows Airplane Wreckage Divers Slog Through Waist-Deep Muck, Face Zero Visibility Trying To Find Bodies

William Booth Washington Post
 

In the badlands of the Everglades, divers pushed themselves Sunday through tangles of saw grass as sharp as serrated knives, slogging more than swimming through a brown, waist-deep ooze so dense with plants and muck that they confessed they were working by feel alone, their fingers reaching for bits of debris, touching things soft and hard.

They could have been blind. It would have been no different.

ValuJet Flight 592, with 109 aboard, did not simply crash in the Everglades on Saturday. It disappeared, seemingly swallowed whole. As of late Sunday, all that had been found were the two engines and, perhaps, some body parts.

No one is expecting a miracle. There were no survivors.

“It’s not the usual crash scene where you see seats or windows or metal,” said Metro-Dade police detective Pat Brickman. “What you see is nothing.”

Along the Tamiami Trail, at the nearest hard-topped road nine miles from the crash, police and searchers have established a busy command center, surrounded by television satellite trucks and gawking tourists.

But a few hundred yards away, there is nothing but quiet and swamp - a vast expanse of tea-colored water slowly drifting across the great marshes of head-high saw grass under a sky of mountainous clouds and a burnishing sun.

It is not the kind of swamp that looks like a dark tangled hell of vines and trees. The Everglades here are open, sun-blasted prairies of water and plants, filled with turtles, snails, snakes, wild orchids, lotus flowers and alligators. But the gators probably are gone.

“They’re out there, but they probably don’t want to mess with the fuel,” said Ron Boland, a volunteer searcher for the Broward County Sheriff’s Department who worked at the last great Everglades plane crash - Eastern Airlines Flight 401 in the early 1970s, a wreck with survivors. This time, Boland is not looking forward to the body extractions - particularly on Mother’s Day.

“It takes a toll on you,” he said. “The kids, especially.”

The searchers here do not smell death. They smell spilled aviation fuel.

In the distance, black vultures circle, but over the crash site, it is helicopters thumping in lazy circles. Indeed, Metro-Dade rescuers say that if one of their helicopters had not been at the crash site almost immediately, it might have taken hours to find any evidence of the wreck.

The plane went down in an area that is probably one of the most inaccessible in Florida. From the two-lane Tamiami Trail, it is a 30-minute ride in a propeller-driven airboat, which must weave back and forth around saw grass stands to stay in water a foot deep.

But the water is deceiving. Below the surface, there is no solid footing, just cool muck, deep enough to sink a man to his armpits. Below that are limestone remains of an ancient seabed.

“The terrain has been our worst enemy,” said Lt. Luis Fernandez of the Metro-Dade Fire and Rescue Squad. “It’s so difficult. It is hard to describe.”

Fernandez said that divers cannot simply step off the airboats - they would sink in the mire. Instead, they must ease themselves into the water. But it is so stirred-up that it is impossible for a diver to see his hand in front of his face. Visibility is zero.

A police detective said one of the divers thought he might have been standing on a piece of the wreckage Sunday. But he was not sure. It could have been something else.

The recovery of bodies and evidence may take weeks. So difficult is the site that investigators are talking about using floating bridges and building dams, as if the recovery were a military siege. Rescuers speak of a “severe extraction,” meaning the victims no longer may look the way bodies are meant to look.

A generation of scientists and environmentalists often has described the Everglades as “fragile,” and this is true. But the marshlands also are some of the toughest real estate on Earth - as brutal as they are beautiful.

It is not a place to wander and make dumb mistakes. Three million people live nearby, but only a handful ever really has ventured into the Everglades, and those men and women often are tough people in tougher machines - in screaming airboats, in swamp buggies with balloon tires 8 feet tall, in tanks.

Most of the Everglades is not land at all - rather, it’s a submerged world covered with a sheet of slowmotion water and blanketed by miles of saw grass. Here, there is an open prairie of water; there, there is a small island with a few palms. It is the last place east of the Mississippi River to harbor wild panthers, which were not even discovered in the Everglades until the late 1970s.

Flight 592 disappeared on the eastern fringes of the Everglades behind the last suburban sprawl of Miami, a sort of ecological badlands a few miles beyond the Indian bingo hall, last-chance gas station, firing range and detention camp where the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service holds illegal aliens.

More than a few searchers have said that while the crash is a true tragedy, it could have been much worse. It could have occurred in the suburbs.

Search teams moved their operation Sunday to the top of a levee that runs along a pair of canals known as L-67A and L-67C. The wreckage appears to be located between the two canals, in an area called The Pocket. The levee top, from which searchers can work and launch boats, is as close as 300 yards to the crash site.

But 300 yards in the Everglades is not like 300 yards anyplace else.

Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash and attempting to determine its cause, said his team was meeting Sunday with local authorities to figure out how to cross the 300 yards to the crash site.

Workers might build a series of low dams and then try to drain water from the crash site. They also are discussing erecting a series of floating bridges. They would need cranes and heavy equipment.

“What it is is a very barren and difficult environment,” Francis said. “It is a very challenging situation out there.”

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