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Search in the Everglades is worse than hunt in ocean Equipment made for water is less effective in swamp


MIAMI -- Bruce Brown has spent the past few days leaning out of a boat in the Everglades, methodically waving an underwater microphone through the marsh, trying to locate the cockpit voice recorder from ValuJet Flight 592.

This is what Brown and his co-workers at Oceaneering Technologies in Upper Marlboro, Md., do: underwater salvage, under contract for the Navy.

The Florida heat is intense. Saw grass cuts the skin. Jet fuel has fouled the still, shallow waters. Nearby, recovery teams wade shoulder to shoulder through the spongy muck, probing for parts of the DC-9 and for its 110 victims.

So far, only pieces of the plane and human remains have been gathered.

"If this accident had happened in 20,000 feet of water, it would be easier," Brown said.

In water, divers could recover the wreckage. In very deep water, robots could retrieve the parts. In the marsh, neither plan works.

Here, searchers wear biohazard suits made of plasticized paper. They spend 20 minutes in the 1- to 5-foot muck before they return to the staging area to be decontaminated.

Listening for 'ping'

Brown and his colleague Chris Cunningham work for about two hours on the boat before returning to the levee, where they throw away the suits and drink water. They don new outfits, which takes about 20 minutes, and return to the hunt. They go through four suits a day.

The voice recorder, investigators hope, will carry the conversations of the crew. But the box, which emits an acoustic "ping" to guide searchers to it, remains lost.

Brown, experimenting with equipment he carried from Maryland, found that the "pingers" work in water but cannot be heard when they're buried in mud.

Searchers don't know how far into the mire the "black box" might be hidden.

"What we'll do is search the area with a pinger locater and do a visible search," Brown said. Investigators estimate the crash site is 200 to 300 feet long and 100 feet wide.

The plane's other black box, the flight-data recorder, was uncovered Monday when a police officer wading through the site stepped on it.

Brown, 30, who holds a degree in ocean engineering from the Florida Institute of Technology, has been with Oceaneering Technologies for seven years. He has hunted for a Navy helicopter in 17,500 feet of water off Wake Island in the Pacific. He explored the ocean floor off the Dominican Republic after a plane crash in February.

Oceaneering Technologies also was the prime contractor on the underwater search after the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

But the murky waters of the Everglades are presenting problems as great as any Brown and his colleagues have encountered.

Recovery problem

He won't discuss what he's seen -- not what has been recovered and not the crater left in the marsh -- except to say, "It's obvious a plane has crashed there."

Five days after the crash, National Transportation Safety Board investigators have consulted with Army, Navy and Air Force experts and still haven't decided how to pull the wreckage from the marsh.

"There are people who are experts on land," Brown says. "There are people who are experts on water. And this is neither."

Pub Date: 5/16/96

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