LOS ANGELES -- Air traffic controllers inside the Los Angeles International Airport tower during last week's fatal collision told investigators that, unlike officials at other major airports, they decided not to employ a trouble-shooter who could have assisted a confused controller whose error apparently caused the disaster, government officials said yesterday.
Backup controllers were assigned last year to help direct rush-hour runway traffic at congested airports nationwide, but the position was not filled most of the time at the airport, said Jim Burnett, the National Transportation Safety Board member leading the investigation.
"They didn't like it," Mr. Burnett said of the airport controllers. "They didn't find it, let's say, helpful."
One aviation expert familiar with operations inside the airport tower said the addition of an assistant controller might have saved the 34 passengers who died last Friday when an arriving USAir Boeing 737 slammed into the rear of a SkyWest commuter plane as it prepared to take off on the same runway.
"Had there been another set of eyes and ears plugged in there, I really believe the accident would not have happened," said a former controller who asked not to be identified. "That is why they created this position in the first place."
Both planes were directed on the collision course by one controller, whose name has not been released by government officials and who is scheduled to be interviewed today.
Mr. Burnett, in his daily briefing yesterday, provided more details on the distractions, or "factors," the female controller faced in the minutes before the crash. He said she was directing at least four planes at roughly the same time -- not three as earlier reported.
Mr. Burnett also disclosed that while some passengers risked their lives to evacuate others from the burning wreckage, survivors are telling them that a few passengers froze in fear or "walked over" people and fought among themselves.
Investigators so far have focused much of their attention on what happened in the control tower. They have said that the controller who guided both aircraft to the same runway appeared confused as she struggled with several "difficult" communications at the same time.
In addition to the USAir 737 and the SkyWest Metroliner, she was trying to re-establish radio contact with a recently landed Wings West Metroliner that had mistakenly switched off its radio as it prepared to taxi across Runway 24-Left, and with a second Wings West plane that was preparing to take off.
Paperwork authorizing takeoff of the second Wings West plane was misplaced in the control tower, investigators said, adding temporarily to the confusion.
Working in the tower at the time were a supervisor, one clearance controller, two ground controllers to handle taxiways and two local controllers to handle runways, Mr. Burnett said.