Questions raised on fireproofing of jet in L.A. crash that killed 34


LOS ANGELES -- As federal investigators tried to determine why 18 people were unable to escape from a burning USAir jet at Los Angeles International Airport, questions arose yesterday over why the airliner did not have the latest in fire-retardant materials.

At the same time, a National Transportation Safety Board official criticized the Federal Aviation Administration for shortcomings in tests on how quickly passengers can escape a burning aircraft.

Some of the survivors among the 89 passengers in the USAir jet relied on bright floor lights and the moisture of firefighters' foam to make their way through thick smoke in the frantic seconds following the fiery collision, said safety board member James Burnett, who is coordinating the Los Angeles investigation.

The crash, which killed 34 people, occurred early Friday evening when an arriving USAir jetliner slammed into the rear of a SkyWest commuter plane as it was preparing to take off on the same runway. All 12 passengers and crew members on the SkyWest plane died.

While the purpose of the NTSB investigation is to determine the cause of the crash, safety officials have already said that the air traffic controller may have been distracted and confused.

Compounding her distraction, Mr. Burnett said, may have been the presence of a third plane, a Wings West commuter that had just landed and was trying to taxi across the same runway.

At the same time, the Wings West crew accidentally shut off radio contact with the controller in the tower. "When this was all going on, the USAir's 737 was asking for permission to land," Mr. Burnett said.

He also said the interior of the USAir jetliner was not equipped with the latest fire-retardant panels, designed to give passengers up to a full minute longer to escape from a burning aircraft. The airline was not required to install the equipment until it underwent renovation; when the regulation was first adopted in September 1988, FAA officials assumed that most airlines would make these changes within two years because they frequently replace the interior for competitive purposes, an FAA spokesman said.

Like all commercial airliners, the Boeing 737 was tested by the FAA to ensure that passengers could evacuate quickly in case of a fire.

But Mr. Burnett said that the FAA and aircraft manufacturers do not simulate actual crash conditions closely enough when carrying out the tests. For example, only able-bodied adults are used in evacuation drills.

Employees of the aircraft manufacturer are frequently used in the evacuation tests, and those volunteering are briefed beforehand, though they are not told which exits will be available, said Dave Duff, a spokesman for the FAA's Aircraft Certification Service in Seattle.

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