MIAMI -- Helicopters hovered over the scorched swampland and recovery workers dodged alligators to dive into the muck. But the Everglades, desolate and mysterious, gave up only a few clues yesterday about the jet that disappeared into the mire Saturday afternoon, killing 109 people and leaving almost no trace.
Local and federal officials gave up any hope of rescuing survivors from ValuJet Flight 592 and changed the name of the mission to "recovery." Then they set about trying to figure out how to find the plane -- or pieces of it -- in the swamp and pull its victims free.
Late yesterday, the plane's two engines were located, but not retrieved from the two to three feet of water that covered them. Underwater visibility was one inch, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator said, and divers were feeling and walking their way around the site.
Miami's WSVN-TV reported last night that the first remains had been recovered and taken to the Dade County medical examiner's office.
Today, Navy underwater search experts will join the investigation, their goals to outline the wreckage and find the flight data recorders. Investigators hope those "black boxes" will help determine what went wrong.
The NTSB also will send a team to Atlanta today to investigate maintenance records.
But a full day after the DC-9 crashed en route from Miami to Atlanta, investigators are still uncertain if the plane disintegrated on impact or was sucked down into the swamp, where it may be held firmly by several feet of mud.
The crew had reported smoke in the cockpit and cabin, and was trying to return to Miami International Airport when witnesses saw the plane crash about 2: 25 p.m. Saturday. Flight 592 had been in the air eight minutes.
Yesterday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena flew over the marsh and saw little evidence of the catastrophe. "We don't know precisely where the major parts of the aircraft are," he said.
And he cautioned that the recovery will not be a quick one. "It is going to take some time, and it's going to be a very technically difficult operation."
In an age when advanced equipment and technologies make the most remote locations seem accessible, the Everglades are challenging the most sophisticated rescue teams.
NTSB Vice Chairman Robert Francis arrived yesterday and called the crash site "a very barren and difficult environment."
He warned that "it is very, very tough how we are going to get the aircraft out of that swamp." Asked if the recovery might take weeks or months, Francis said, "we certainly hope not months."
The crash occurred about eight miles from the nearest road. Saw grass, a tough marsh plant with blades like swords, grows three and four feet high throughout the swamp. Alligators and snakes glide along the canals. And now jet fuel has fouled the waters, adding another hazard for divers.
Francis said the recovery teams were considering several options, none simple. Among the possibilities: building a road along a levee to allow equipment to be moved in; building dikes around the area and attempting to drain several feet of water from around the plane; creating pontoon bridges to get close to the site.
But after meeting with experts, including members of the Army Corps of Engineers, Francis said last night that the team is stymied about how to pull the plane out.
"There is nowhere near a consensus as to the best way we should be proceeding," he said.
Much of the wreckage seen so far has blue paint on it, which Francis said indicated it was likely from the tail of the aircraft. That raises hope, he said, that the recorders were nearby and would be found "fairly quickly."
The DC-9 had been delivered to Delta Air Lines in 1969 and operated until 1992, when Delta took it out of service. In 1993 it was refurbished by McDonnell Douglas Corp. and delivered to ValuJet late in 1993.
Earlier at the crash site, Ron Boland sat patiently on his airboat, waiting to be called to help with search and rescue operations.
A volunteer with the Broward County sheriff's posse, he said he would help with removing bodies. Yesterday afternoon, he was just waiting. "Until they bring the body, the main fuselage, back to the surface, there's nothing we can do," Boland said.
The airboats -- which look like metal platforms with engines carried in a cage at the rear -- are efficient in skimming over the swamp.
Boland is familiar with the landscape from years of fishing and frogging in the Everglades.
"It's about a foot and a half, two foot of water out there," he said. "And then there's mud -- depending on where you are, who knows how much."
The plane, he said, "didn't belly in. It went nose in." He speculated that the fuselage is held down by the vacuum created by the mud.
No bodies had been recovered by late yesterday afternoon, to the frustration of the state and local crews who had set up a command post on the highway closest to the crash site. "We are known as rescuers," Metro-Dade Fire Rescue spokesman Lt. Luis Fernandez said. "We rescue victims. And when we can't rescue victims, it hurts us."
Families of the victims were arriving yesterday from as far away as England and Venezuela. ValuJet set up a counseling center at an airport hotel, where relatives gathered in a room guarded by grim airline employees.
In the hotel courtyard, painted in bright tropical pinks and turquoises, happy families were celebrating Mother's Day with an elaborate brunch. Children were tearing through the lobby, trailing balloons on strings.
Clinging to hopes
Jill Lenney, who heads the social work program at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami and volunteered to counsel relatives of crash victims, said the courtyard was a stark contrast to the grief-filled room in which she spent the day.
With other volunteer counselors, she listened to people who wonder if they'll ever know what happened to their loved ones.
Because there is so little physical evidence of the crash, "We're finding some people who are still clinging to hope that their loved ones are alive," Lenney said.
"Since there's so little to be seen, it's very hard for them to grab on to something. It's unreal."
Other relatives are anxious to know exactly what plans are in place for retrieving the victims and when their waiting will end.
No one, Lenney said, can say.
Counseling these families, Lenney said, was different from other counseling she's done. Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Florida in 1993, shook the community. But that was a natural disaster, a storm that could be tracked as it approached. "This," she said, "happened in a moment."
Pub Date: 5/13/96