Investigators flew to this Pacific island Thursday intent on determining whether an out-of-service component of the airport electronic navigation system contributed to the crash of a Korean Air jumbo jet that killed at least 224 people.
Survivors of the crash, who numbered 29 by airline count and from 27 to 30 by other reports, said there was no fire on board and that little else seemed unusual before the Boeing 747, carrying 254 people, hit a jungle hillside Wednesday on approach to the airport runway.
The investigators, sent by the National Transportation Safety Board, also were intent on looking into any connection between the crash and the fact that the Guam airport tower was being operated by contract employees, not Federal Aviation Administration flight controllers.
Authorities focused on the cause of the tragedy as U.S. troops recovered more charred bodies from the wreckage and anguished relatives arrived from Seoul on another Korean Air jet and mourned their loved ones. The survivors and their families marveled at how fate had spared them.
“When I saw my brother, he had just a little scratch on the chest and the leg,” said Hong Yon Ha, a Korean woman living in Guam, whose brother, Hong Hyon Song, walked away from the crash after helping a fellow passenger climb out of the burning wreckage. “Doctors at the hospital said it was a miracle.
“(But) he seems to be suffering from shock. He said he could still hear the children (on the plane) screaming.”
In Washington, Pat Cariseo, an NTSB official, said that the cockpit-voice and flight-data recorders from Flight 801 had arrived at the NTSB laboratory “in excellent condition.” He said investigators “hope to get good data out of them.”
Federal officials, who requested anonymity, said that the glide slope component of the Guam airport electronic navigation system, called an Instrument Landing System, or ILS, was out of service for repairs at the time of the crash and had been out of operation for two weeks. It was not scheduled to go back into service until at least Sept. 12.
Pilots, who use ILS glide slopes to approach airports on autopilot, were notified on July 7 that the glide slope at Guam would be down for maintenance. Such an occurrence is not uncommon.
This meant that Park Yong Chul, the pilot of Flight 801, had to control his descent manually. One alternative would have been to use a system called DME, or Distance Measuring Equipment, at the airport, which broadcasts heading and range. Cariseo, the NTSB official, said he did not know whether the DME system at the Guam airport was working properly.
Under this DME alternative, Park would have been provided with altitude readings by air traffic controllers, who would have guided him down in a series of steps. NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said his investigators would look into whether the out-of-service glide slope and the fact that controllers in the Guam tower were contract employees had any connection with the crash.
The use of contract employees instead of FAA controllers in airport towers dates from 1982, as an outgrowth of the air traffic controllers’ strike during the Reagan administration and was later expanded to cut costs.
Out of 684 towers nationwide, 125 at low-activity airports are staffed by privately employed controllers, Fraser Jones, an FAA spokesman, told the Associated Press. He said the Guam airport handles 64,124 flights a year, within the typical contract-tower range of 50,000 to 100,000 flights.
Near the airport, growing numbers of sorrowful relatives gathered at an information center set up by Korean Air at the Pacific Star Hotel. Among the survivors, the airline said, were four Americans: Grace Chung, 11, of Marietta, Ga., and Hyun Seong Hong, Angela Shim and Jeannie Shim, whose ages were not available, all from Guam.
Among the relatives gathering at the information center was Kim Sung Hee, whose husband was returning home to Guam on Flight 801 after a visit to Seoul. “It hasn’t been confirmed whether he’s alive or dead,” Kim said, as hope faded. “We didn’t see his name in the list of people in the hospital.”
By late Wednesday afternoon, U.S. military personnel decided there was no hope for more survivors, and they suspended their search.
Military and Korean Air officials said that smoldering parts of the plane were still too hot to touch and that safety experts had requested that parts of the wreckage unable to contain survivors be left undisturbed until investigators arrived.
“We know there are some other bodies still in the crash site,” Air Force Col. Al Riggle said. “(But) part of the fuselage is still pretty hot from the fire. We can’t get in there now.”
Some relatives of the victims said that hope had been abandoned too quickly.
“If this was an American plane, would they have stopped rescue operations so soon?” a grieving questioner demanded at an airline briefing for the relatives.
“Even if the chance of survival is zero, they would have continued trying to save some lives. … I have lost eight family members: my wife, my children, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law. They’ve stopped the rescue operation already? There may be someone clinging on.”
But Rear Adm. Marty Janczak, who commands U.S. Naval forces on the Mariana Islands in the Pacific, told reporters that he was “absolutely sure that there are no more survivors at the crash site.”
Ball said that the last two survivors - a woman and child - were pulled out of the wreckage about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, nearly seven hours after the crash.
Most of the survivors were seated in the front of the plane, which was largely intact. But Park, the pilot, and his co-pilot were missing and presumed dead.
In addition to the pilot and co-pilot, the aircraft had 21 crew members.