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Local firm brings clues to surface Oceaneering operates equipment used at TWA crash site; 'Firehouse readiness' expected; Contract with Navy calls for action within four hours


One of the first calls for help after Trans World Airlines Flight 800 exploded was to an Upper Marlboro company.

The day after the Boeing 747 exploded minutes after taking off from New York bound for Paris, the phone rang at Oceaneering Technologies Inc., which is involved in underwater salvage with a reputation for solving mysteries of the deep.

The call was from Capt. Raymond McCord of the Navy's Sea System Command. He wanted Oceaneering's underwater search equipment on the scene of the crash, and he wanted it there pronto.

"We got the call in the afternoon, around 2 o'clock," recalled Lee Brown, a spokeswoman for Oceaneering. "And we had our gear on a truck heading to New York before six."

Under terms of its contract with the Navy, Oceaneering is on "firehouse readiness" -- meaning it must be ready to leave for any part of the world within four hours.

Initially, the company sent a team of eight salvage experts along with a pinging locater used to search for the aircraft's missing "black box" voice and data recorders; a sonar scanner to map the wreckage on the ocean floor and two unmanned mini-subs, called remote operated vehicles (ROV), to take video and still pictures of the wreckage 120 feet below the surface.

The equipment is owned by the Navy, but operated and maintained by Oceaneering.

"We now have about 25 people on site," Brown said. "They are working around the clock, 24 hours a day. They work 12 hours and they are off 12 hours."

The crew and the equipment is split between two ships: the USS Grasp, a salvage ship designed to retrieve wreckage from the ocean floor, and the M. V. Pirouette, a vessel leased by Oceaneering as a base of operation.

Brown declined to comment on the company's role in locating the plane's wreckage on the ocean floor. She referred all questions related to the operations of the mission to the Navy in the Pentagon.

Lt. Rick Haupt said Oceaneering is a "key part of the investigation in conjunction with other agencies at the wreckage site.

"The main thing they have done is use a side scanner sonar to map the ocean floor. They mapped the wreckage site. They have also photographed the site, which has been helpful in getting Navy divers down to recover bodies and parts of the plane."

Haupt said Navy divers found the plane's black box, but Oceaneering played an indirect role by locating the wreckage on the ocean floor.

The search for clues to the crash of Flight 800 is just the latest chapter in the history of a company that reads like a mystery novel.

In 1991, the company played a role in the murder and fraud conviction of the head of a political club in Austria. The case also led to the resignation of two top government ministers.

Huge insurance policy

It centered on the sinking of the cargo ship Lucona, with a crew of 12, and an attempt to collect $18 million insurance policy on its alleged cargo, a uranium processing plant. But photos taken by Oceaneering's unmanned mini-subs of the ship's wreckage nearly three miles beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean showed no uranium plant.

They did, however, present evidence that the vessel had been blown apart by a bomb inside.

It was an Oceaneering ROV that recovered the sections of the space shuttle Challenger's booster rocket containing the faulty O-ring blamed for the 1986 explosion.

The firm also retrieved the black boxes of a German charter flight that crashed in 1995 in 7,000-foot-deep waters off the Dominican Republic.

More recently, Oceaneering was involved in the search for the cockpit voice recorder of ValueJet Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades.

Pub Date: 7/29/96

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