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Jet's voice recorder discloses fire warning Cause of cabin blaze is still being probed

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Less than six minutes after ValuJet Flight 592 took off from Miami International Airport, someone opened the cockpit door to tell the apparently unsuspecting pilots about a fire in the passenger cabin of the DC-9.

National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Robert Francis offered that account yesterday after a team of experts gave a preliminary listen to scratchy voices captured on the cockpit voice recorder during the final moments before the flight crashed into the Everglades May 11.

"It appears that the cockpit door opened and there were verbal indications from the cockpit that there was fire in the passenger cabin," Francis said at NTSB headquarters here.

"There were also indications from the cabin that there were problems obtaining oxygen," he added.

In the cockpit were the pilot, Candalyn "Candi" Kubeck, 35, of Phoenix, and her co-pilot, Richard Hazen, 52, of Mineola, Texas. It is their communications with each other and possibly other crew members that investigators are trying to decipher on the tape, which lay submerged in the Everglades for 15 days before it was recovered Sunday afternoon.

At the crash site yesterday, additional pieces were recovered outside the main crater. Some of the material showed fire damage, according to Mike Benson, an NTSB spokesman in Miami.

Findings of the first two weeks of the NTSB investigation suggest the fire that doomed the DC-9 might have been caused, or at least accelerated, by old oxygen canisters that were being carried in a cargo bay beneath the passenger cabin. ValuJet was not authorized to carry the 119 still-filled canisters as cargo.

From pieces already recovered, it appears the fire was so intense that it melted aluminum portions of a seat frame in the passenger cabin, the NTSB has said.

It takes at least 500 degrees to melt the frame, opening the possibility that passengers may have been incapacitated or dead before impact. Benson said investigators would be speculating if they made such a conclusion now.

"We are still very much in a fact-finding mode," Benson said. "We fTC are not anywhere to begin analysis."

While yesterday's news conference added no new light on the source of the blaze, it added some information about the brief, final flight of the Atlanta-bound ValuJet. The crash killed 110 passengers and crew.

Francis reported that the tape from the cockpit voice recorder was in "good condition," but that the voices were hard to decipher.

"The cockpit background noise makes it very difficult to hear," said Bernard Loeb, director of NTSB's office of aviation safety. He had no further explanation for that noise.

Francis said investigators had only begun to study the tape. But he did say this much:

The flight in its entirety from takeoff to crash lasted "10 to 11 minutes," and the first sign of a problem occurred six minutes into the tape -- but less than six minutes into the flight, Francis added, because the tape recording began sometime before takeoff itself.

"That's when we started to hear the apparent opening of the door and the news that that there was fire in the cabin," Francis said.

A special voice recorder team was now systematically listening to the tape, picking out conversation and other information from the whir and hum of the cockpit to create a definitive transcript of exchanges.

The team is made up of members of the NTSB; the Federal Aviation Administration; a delegate each from Pratt & Whitney Corp., which built the aircraft's engines, and McDonnell Douglas Corp., which built the plane; and a representative of ValuJet, the Atlanta-based discount carrier.

"The information on the tape is very, very difficult to decipher at this point," said Francis, adding that a final readout on the tape would take "not a question of hours but days. We really don't know."

"Speed is not what's driving us," he added. "We want to do this carefully accurately and professionally."

Investigators displayed the shell of the cockpit voice recorder, a once fluorescent orange-colored box, also sometimes known as a "black box."

The aluminum shell of the recorder -- which was flown up from Miami Sunday night, cleaned with alcohol to prevent deterioration and cracked open before dawn yesterday -- showed a deep indentation that nearly punctured the lining. The damage was apparently caused by impact with another object during the crash, not an explosion, Francis said.

Pub Date: 5/28/96

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