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Breaking News

Alaska Airlines Plane Crashes off California Coast; Officials Fear 88 Killed

Aired January 31, 2000 - 10:32 p.m. ET


JIM MORET, CNN ANCHOR: For those of you joining us, this is a special edition of CNN "NEWSSTAND." We're continuing to follow the developing story of the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, a flight bound from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to San Francisco. It was diverted to Los Angeles International Airport today at about 3:45 Pacific Time nearly four hours ago, at which point the plane crashed off the coast of Los Angeles, approximately 20 miles northwest of Los Angeles International Airport.

You can see here shots, search and rescue team, U.S. Coast Guard and Naval operations continuing at this hour, expected to continue around the clock as they continue to search for the 85 people on board, 80 passengers, five crew members: initial reports that some bodies were found, no reports whatsoever of any survivors. But this is still being labeled a search-and-rescue effort.

Let's join now Greg Lefevre, CNN correspondent, by telephone from San Francisco.

Greg, what's the latest from there?

GREG LEFEVRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, just moments ago, we left a briefing with the San -- Alaska Airlines station manager here in San Francisco, Cindy Fraser. She said that the pilot had radioed problems with stabilizer trim as the plane was in the Los Angeles area and asked to be diverted to the Los Angeles International Airport.

Her information was that the MD-80 series had no history of difficulties with stabilizer trim, that the plane was on its -- on a path of diversion to the Los Angeles Airport when, in Alaska Airlines words, the plane "was lost."

A particularly difficult moment, of course, for the airline itself, because this airline, as you know, has a really sterling -- or had a really sterling record. And now the airport family here, the Alaska Airlines family here is going through the same difficulty that families of many of the passengers are going through -- Jim.

MORET: Greg, the airline in a news conference, Jack Evans from Alaska Airlines, said that they were dispatching passenger assistance teams, several hundred people going to locations where passengers were expected to disembark the aircraft. And we know that it was slated to land in San Francisco. Have you seen evidence of these assistance teams at the airport where you are?

LEFEVRE: We have not seen evidence of those teams. When a crash like this occurs, the airport dispatches its own. They have clergy on call, and we have seen some evidence of those clergy here. The Alaska Airlines folks have an office right off the main lobby here, and we understand that at last count about four folks have sought refuge, if you will, at that location.

MORET: CNN's Greg Lefevre reporting by telephone from San Francisco International Airport.

We -- Greg, what are -- what are the weather conditions up in the airport? And rather than that, let's go now to Karen Maginnis at the CNN Weather Center.

Karen, focus on the search area just off the coast of Los Angeles. You were reporting earlier 15 to 20 knot winds and 54 degree water temperature. Clearly, those are relevant to the people in and around the search area. What's the latest?

KAREN MAGINNIS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Jim, actually, it has become a little more treacherous there. We're looking at a little bit of a swell taking place here. There is a very big storm here that is moving across the Pacific. It is affecting those regions powerfully across Washington and Oregon.

I mentioned this because that's such a deep area of low pressure, and a frontal system swings out here, that we're seeing a little bit of a push of water here. So there is a heavy surf advisory in some of these coastal regions here in Southern California.

Generally, we're looking at 17- to 20-foot swells that will occur until about noontime tomorrow, and then we're looking at them to perhaps subside just a little bit.

But the water temperature here is running about that 54 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. So quite cold. The actual outside air temperature through this region was also being reported about 56, 57 degrees at that particular time.

Now, we're not going to see any great dips in the temperature here, the water temperature. But it does like for the Coast Guard and for the search efforts, it looks like it is going to be a wee bit on the stormy side as far as those wave heights are concerned. It's going to be a little rolly and rocky, and that's going to blow the debris around quite a bit through this region as well.

So, that heavy surf advisory is in effect until noontime tomorrow, and then it looks like by about Thursday we might start to see some storminess start to move into that region. So over the next several days, as they're watching that debris field in through the waters, it's going to be a little choppy. But then it looks like some of the wet, soggy weather starts to materialize, we think, moving associated with the frontal system that I told you about affecting the Pacific Northwest, where in their coastal regions, they are looking at winds maybe 65 miles an hour. So actually it could be a whole lot worse. But in fact, we're looking at some gusty winds coming out of the west northwest about 15 to 20 knots. There may be some occasionally higher gusts, and some of those swells are going to be about 17 to 20 feet. And that will continue until midday tomorrow.

That's our weather picture -- Jim.

MORET: Thank you, Karen. And bringing you up to date, these figures obviously change as they are preliminary figures coming out of the airline, the FAA and so forth.

According to Alaska Airlines, the latest figures: 88 people on board, 83 of them passengers, five crew members. This is on Flight 261, bound from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to San Francisco, then continuing on to Seattle. It crashed approximately -- nearly 4 hours ago, 20 miles northwest off the coast of Los Angeles.

The pilot had radioed problems with the stabilizer trim, which, as Carl Rochelle identified earlier, would affect the controllability and maneuverability of the aircraft. There were no prior problems with this specific plane with respect to the stabilizer trim. The plane was last serviced on January 30th of this year and January 11th had a fairly major check, known as an A check, which is the least intrusive of three types of checks. We have no further information.

It was an MD-83 aircraft, which is a variation of the MD-80, manufactured in 1992.

Let's go back now to Jennifer Auther at Point Mugu just off the site of the crash of this flight.

Jennifer, what's the latest?

JENNIFER AUTHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, the latest that we're hearing now is actually coming from the U.S. Coast Guard, and that is the lead agency in this search-and-rescue effort here. And now we are hearing that two bodies have been recovered from the waters 20 miles off the coast here. The waters there are said to be as deep as 400 feet.

Again, two bodies recovered from Flight 261. We know that a helicopter combat support unit is on the scene. There are several: One is the HCS-5; the other is the HH-60 Seahawk helicopter. Both of those search-and-rescue units do have night vision capabilities so that search continues.

We are told that they were not going to stop searching until they get the word, and they're prepared to go for as long as it takes.

But part of the sad -- part of any crash like this is you hope for word of survivors, and right now we're hearing word of two bodies having been recovered from the waters off the California coastline -- Jim.

MORET: Jennifer, we heard the weather report in the forecast by Karen Maginnis. Any indication that the weather is a factor, beyond the darkness obviously? Is it a factor in this search-and-rescue operation?

AUTHER: From this vantage point, I would say that the weather would not be a factor. I'm standing here with no coat on, and it's the end of January and we haven't crossed into February yet here in California.

It is not cold enough yet for me to put on a coat. So I would venture to say that in a night search with very little wind, you would have more preserved scene that you could look for bodies or hopefully survivors in a case like this.

MORET: Jennifer Auther at Point Mugu Naval Air Station.

Check in once again with Carl Rochelle, who is in addition to being a correspondent is a certified flight instructor.

Carl, based upon everything you've heard so far, this is obviously still very early in this investigation. The crash is not yet four hours old. You're still, however, finding new information which allows you to perhaps rule out certain things.


Interesting, Jim, I just talked with a retired airline pilot who was flying DC-9s, which of course is the genesis of the MD-80, 82, 83 series: They're all beginning DC-9s. It's an airplane that looks a bit like this. I'll turn it on -- roll it on its side so that you can...

MORET: Carl...

ROCHELLE: All right. I understand that we're about to have a news conference now. Let's go that and we'll come back.


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