Forty-five tons of textiles may have shifted as a cargo plane struggled to take off from Miami International Airport, and the engines then apparently stalled, sending the plane plummeting tail first into a busy street, investigators said.
The doomed DC-8’s roll down the runway was longer than normal, and when it finally became airborne, its nose was at an 85-degree angle before crashing back to earth, investigators said.
Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration said they were looking at whether the 29-year-old plane may have been overloaded with cargo and extra fuel, and whether the cargo shifted during takeoff.
Earlier Friday, a body was found in a car whose charred shell was mangled in with the wreckage of the plane - the first known victim to be killed on the ground.
Investigators believed that three bodies recovered Thursday were the crew members of the Fine Air Services Inc. flight, and they continued searching Friday for the body of the fourth person on board, an employee of the company shipping the cargo.
But they warned that none of the four bodies found had been identified because they were so badly burned.
“You got to remember that all these bodies are in bad condition, so it’s going to take some time to identify these people,” said Juan Del Castillo of Metro-Dade police.
It was not immediately known if the person found in the car was one of two people who were believed to have been in the vicinity of the fiery crash and were reported missing after not returning home Thursday night.
Liliana Alvarez said her younger brother, 34-year-old Renato Alvarez, disappeared Thursday while taking lunch to his wife at a business near the crash site. She said the father of a small boy would never disappear without calling his family.
“He’s a very loving and caring husband and he wouldn’t do that,” she said. “We think he might have perished in the crash.”
Federal officials say a cargo manifest showed the plane was carrying almost 45 tons of fabric for Levi’s dress slacks, five tons more than the airline said. It was bound for the Dominican Republic.
They also were investigating whether the plane took on more fuel than normal to avoid refueling in Santo Domingo where the cost would be more expensive than in the United States.
The cockpit voice recorder indicated that a device known as the “stick shaker” was activated, signaling a dangerous slowing of the plane. An aerodynamic stall occurs when the plane slows or its angle of flight is too steep to allow jet engines to properly use an air flow.
“Some witnesses heard popping noises and some said they saw flames trailing from the engines,” said NTSB chairman Jim Hall. “The nose settled down as the wings rolled left and right,” then the plane slammed into the ground and exploded.
The information from the flight data recorder did not fully measure the 11 different types of data it was supposed to, and Hall said many older planes retrofitted with the data recorders have had similar problems.
Among other potential causes being considered were mechanical problem and pilot error.
“It’s very early in the investigation and a lot of work has to be done before getting into an analysis,” Hall said.
Many of the shops and offices at International Airport Center, and the normally crowded Milam Dairy Road, remained closed Friday as investigators picked over the fuel-soaked and charred fuselage.
The plane’s shattered and burning fuselage slid across the busy road, which runs next to the airport and to the doorsteps of small businesses and shops. Two people on the ground suffered minor injuries.