MIAMI -- Recovery teams scored a success in their struggle against the Everglades yesterday, pulling from the mire the flight data recorder of ValuJet Flight 592, which crashed and disappeared into the marsh Saturday.
Evidence was mounting that the DC-9 disintegrated as it plunged nose first into the ground. Investigators said the plane apparently fell 7,500 feet in its last 40 seconds.
In the third day of the search, workers found no sizable pieces of the fuselage. Instead, crews found only small parts of the bodies of the 109 people who died -- but not an identifiable victim. The seven body bags containing the human remains were taken to the downtown morgue.
"This is about as bad as it gets in terms of body recovery," said Dr. Roger E. Mittleman, Dade County's chief medical examiner.
Heat, jet fuel and hydraulic fluid will begin dissolving human tissue, said Dr. Joseph Davis, retired chief medical examiner, who is assisting with the effort.
Investigators hope the flight data recorder, holding such information as speed and altitude, will help explain why the 27-year-old plane crashed just eight minutes after it left Miami International Airport bound for Atlanta.
"This for us is as important as anything we could have," said Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, in a news conference last night.
Despite the sophisticated electronic signal that was supposed to help locate the flight data recorder, the "black box" was discovered in the simplest way -- a police officer stepped on it, said Gregory Feith, an NTSB investigator.
The officer was in water waist-to-chest deep and the box was partially submerged in the mud.
Feith went by airboat to the scene, where the officer had put the 30-pound recorder into a body bag. Feith bought an Igloo cooler and submerged the recorder in water to keep it from drying out on its trip to Washington, where its data will be analyzed.
Although investigators were making some progress -- including locating the engines and other recognizable pieces of the plane -- the Everglades continued to challenge the recovery team.
Tedious, 20-minute shifts
From sunrise, in searing heat, recovery workers in protective gear waded in lines through the muck, combing the black water in 20-minute shifts for even the smallest pieces of wreckage.
"There obviously are major parts of the aircraft we haven't yet seen," Francis said.
Scientists who study the Everglades say they are amazed that no parts of the plane are visible. The muck in the area is only 3 to 7 feet deep, not enough to swallow up a DC-9, they say.
The scientists speculate that only pieces of the jet will be found amid the water and grassy hummocks that compose the Everglades. The fuselage did not just settle into the ooze, they say.
"It had to have hit rock and gone to pieces," said Joel Trexler, an ecology professor at Florida International University in Miami.
The peat -- decomposed plants -- "isn't that deep," Trexler said. "You just don't sink that far there. You'd have to compress a DC-9 for it to be covered."
Beneath the peat is several feet of porous limestone, which sits atop bedrock.
Steve Coughlin, a wildlife biologist with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, also described "a relatively hard bottom out there. The soil isn't that deep.
"I'm not sure how that plane disappeared the way it did. It came down so hard, so fast, I would image that thing just hit bedrock and disintegrated."
Biohazard suits worn
NTSB investigators said the exact location and condition of the wreckage remains a mystery. And they emphasized that the Everglades is the most difficult location they've ever encountered.
Francis, who toured the site by airboat yesterday, said a sniper armed with an automatic weapon and a handgun sat atop the craft, ready to shoot any alligators that approached. "This is tough stuff out there," he said.
Recovery workers, he said, must don biohazard suits to protect them from the jet fuel, which burns the skin, and from the tough saw grass.
Dressing takes about 20 minutes, Francis said, and decontamination after the recovery shifts takes another 20 minutes -- 40 minutes' worth of effort for a 20-minute shift spent looking for pieces of bodies and wreckage.
Meanwhile, experts including Navy salvage specialists and members of the Army Corps of Engineers still have not agreed on how to dig out the pieces of the plane. What recovery crews need here is solid footing. What the Everglades gives them is soft, uncertain terrain, nothing firm on which to stand as workers try to pull from the marsh the jet's remains.
Spongy under ordinary conditions, the peat at the crash site "is a solid that's been partially churned up by the impact of the plane," said Ronald Hofstetter, a wetland ecologist who teaches biology at the University of Miami. "It's like a well-blended stew."
The aquatic plants that blanket the marsh send thick, tangled roots into the peat. And peat compresses when any weight is put on it, Hofstetter said, with peat in some areas compressing more than in others.
That would make it almost impossible to bring heavy equipment into the area without constructing some platform to support the machinery.
"You need to build some kind of broad footprint, or you need to build some kind of pilings into the peat," he said.
"You can't bring a crane out," Coughlin said. "It would end up burying itself in the muck."
Sunday, NTSB officials said that one option might be to build temporary dams around the crash site and drain out some water, in an effort to expose the wreckage. But scientists were skeptical that approach could work.
"You couldn't just put up a little dike at the surface and drain water, because it would just run back in under the dike," Hofstetter said.
A levee has become the command center for recovery teams. Atop the earthen structure, workers have erected canopies to shield themselves from the blazing sun.
From that staging area, airboats carry the workers out to the search area. Helicopters circle the area constantly.
Vans from the medical examiner's office stand by to carry body bags downtown. By last night, seven body bags had been delivered to the morgue, where the staff of 65 will try to make identifications.
"So far, there is not much hope we're going to recover any intact bodies," Dr. Davis said. "I don't hold any hope we're going to find any large, recognizable portions of people."
He spoke not of bodies but of "fragments." The largest of the remains found yesterday was a knee. Identifications may take months, and some may never be made, Davis said.
"We don't know what can be recovered from that hold out there in the Everglades," he said.
The medical examiner's staff hopes they can make identifications from fragments of teeth or the serial number on a pacemaker or a section of a tattoo. Relatives were filling out forms detailing any medical information that might help with identification.
The NTSB's concern about alligators and snakes, the scientists say, has been exaggerated. The wildlife fear humans and would avoid the area, they say.
But deer flies, "which bite little chunks out of your skin" and don't mind insect repellents, will plague the workers, Hofstetter said.
The crash scene is near the border of the Miccosukee Indian Reservation, where the Miccosukee Restaurant advertises frogs' legs, fresh from the Everglades, as a specialty.
Ecologists predict the crash's impact on the environment will be small. Coughlin said that very little water flows in and out of the site, so jet fuel will not foul other areas. Wading birds, such as great blue heron, ibis and egret, likely will stay away and feed elsewhere.
Pub Date: 5/14/96