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Breaking News

Alaska Airlines Flight 261: Plane Plummets Into Pacific; 88 People on Board; Armada of Boats Searching for Signs of Life

Aired February 1, 2000 - 0:00 a.m. ET


JIM MORET, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, another air tragedy. Alaska Airlines flight 261 plummets into the Pacific just miles from the California shore.

CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: Eighty-eight people were on board, and an armada of boats is searching the dark waters right now for any sign of life.

Continuing our coverage of this tragedy, I'm Catherine Callaway at the CNN Center in Atlanta.

MORET: And I'm Jim Moret reporting from Los Angeles.

The crash happened just over four hours ago. That's when authorities say the plane disappeared from radar. Airline spokesmen say pilots had reported a mechanical problem with the plane and had requested an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport, which they had just passed. Their flight originated in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a daily flight to San Francisco. This one was to have continued on to Seattle.

We are slowly learning more about the plane, an MD-83, part of the MD-80 series. These are pictures of the actual plane involved taken in 1997. The spokesman for the airlines says that particular plane had just been serviced.

From the crash scene, word is that at the moment there are no signs of survivors. Relatives of those on board are being urged to phone this automated number, 1-800-553-5117, you see it on your screen.

About two hours ago, a U.S. Coast Guard captain briefed reporters, stressing that they are far from giving up hope of finding survivors. Here's what he had to say about the ongoing search.


CAPTAIN GEORGE WRIGHT, U.S. COAST GUARD: There's nothing we can say to make this easy, but I wanted to make sure you knew that our thoughts and prayers were with every family member involved.

We have a massive search and rescue effort ongoing as we speak. Now, the charts behind me depict the area. It's about 3.1 miles north of Anacapa Island, which is off shore here in Southern California. And when I say massive, I mean we're pulling out every stop to get resources on scene.

Currently there are four Coast Guard helicopters, one Coast Guard C-130. Now, the Coast Guard C-130 is a large airplane that is coordinating the air search and rescue effort to coordinate patterns we look at and to keep any aircraft apart from each other. There are two Coast Guard boats on scene and a Navy ship.

That's not it, though. We've called out all resources. There are seven Coast Guard cutters en route to the location and another Navy ship. So we have every resource we can muster either on scene or en route.

We are searching for survivors. The water temperature is about 58 degrees. We're going to search for survivors until there is zero chance of finding anybody from this tragedy alive. And every resource is out there to find people. We're actively searching for survivors.

And I think at that -- at this point we'll open it up for questions.


QUESTION: We're on live right now. How long can you keep up this effort to try to find the survivors? I mean, it's been a couple of hours now. I mean, theoretically, I know you have a lot of hope, but theoretically, how long can you really keep this up?

WRIGHT: We'll keep this up until there's zero chance of finding anybody alive. And in 58-degree water temperature, people can survive. And there's been miracles. So we're not going to quit until we're positive that there's absolutely no chance. And we're at -- we're also backfilling (ph). That's when I told you the -- how many cutters were on scene and planes are on scenes. These seven Coast Guard cutters en route can keep out there just as long as we have to to make sure we find survivors.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) ... reports from two to seven bodies have already been recovered. Can you fill us in on what you've been able to find out there as far as -- other than debris?

WRIGHT: I'd like to emphasize that we're searching for survivors, it's a search and rescue case. There has been a victim -- it's my understanding there has been a victim recovered. And it's difficult for me to say anything more. As you know, this is a far way away from my current location, and that's all I'd like to say about that.

QUESTION: You're currently calling it still a rescue operation, but as far as things like a salvage operation goes, what kind of depths are we talking about in that area?

WRIGHT: Absolutely, it's a search and rescue operation. And our whole rescue coordination center has been focused on getting survivors. As far as anything else down the road, we're looking at it, we're making sure we have vessels en route that can recover wreckage and debris. And -- but right now, we're still focusing on survivors.

QUESTION: Captain, do you have any idea how...


CALLAWAY: That was George Wright of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Also a few moments ago, we heard from Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Evans, who brought us up to date on the latest from the airline.


JACK EVANS, ALASKA AIRLINES SPOKESMAN: Alaska Airlines flight 261 from Puerto Vallarta to San Francisco went down in the water late this afternoon approximately 20 miles off Point Mugu, California. The flight carried a total of 83 passengers. That's a change from before, 83 passengers and five crew members, two of whom were pilots, three of whom were flight attendants.

The crew radioed a problem with stabilizer trim, and the plane was diverted to Los Angeles. Flight controllers lost radio contact with the aircraft at approximately 4:36 P.M. Pacific Standard time, and the Coast Guard was dispatched.

The plane, an MD-80, had no history of stabilizer trim problems. The tail number is 963. The full tail number is N-963-AS. It was manufactured in 1992. Some of the background on that aircraft itself, let me provide that to you as well. The aircraft was powered by two J as in John, T as in Tom, 8, D as in David, Pratt and Whitney engines, and as I told you before, the aircraft was routinely serviced yesterday, as early as yesterday, as recently as yesterday.

I still haven't found out exactly what kind of servicing occurred, but I will have that information for you as soon as possible. It also went through two major checks, an A-check on January 11 of this year, and last year at this time, about, a C-check, which is a more extensive check.

It is one of 35 MD-80s that Alaska Airlines operates out of a fleet of 88. Just some general information on the MD-80. It's one of the most successful airplanes in commercial aviation history, as well as the 737, which is the other aircraft type we operate. Douglas Aircraft, McDonnell Douglas and Boeing, have delivered 1,191 MD-80s from 1979 to 1999, and more than 1,180 of those are still in service with more than 50 domestic and foreign airlines.

The first MD-80, then known as a DC-9 series 80, or Super 80, made its initial flight on October 18, 1979. Less than a year later, on September 13, 1980, SwissAir took the first delivery. The airplane entered passenger service the following month, and TWA took delivery of its first MD-80, an MD-82, on April 18, 1983. Some of you asked for information on previous fatal accidents that Alaska Airlines has experiences, so let me read those to you, and I will have this information in printed form for you shortly. We have experienced two fatal accidents since 1970. Both involved Boeing 727 jet aircraft.

The first occurred on September 4, 1971, and it occurred when a controlled flight hit a mountain slope in Juneau, Alaska, about 28 miles west of the airport. All seven crew members and 104 passengers on that flight were killed.

The second occurred on April 5, 1976, when a Boeing 727 operated by Alaska overran the runway after landing in Katchekan (ph), Alaska. One of the 50 passengers on board later died of a heart attack.


MORET: That was Jack Evans, spokesperson for Alaska Airlines, spoke with us in the last hour.

Flight 261, Alaska Air, crashed off the coast of Point Mugu. Jennifer Auther is at the Point Mugu Naval Air Station now with the latest.


JENNIFER AUTHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, as soon as Alaska flight 261 disappeared, officials here at Point Mugu Naval Air Station were notified. They immediately sent up a P-3 O'Ryan (ph) surveillance aircraft, also an HCS-5, that's a helicopter combat support unit, along with an HH-60 Sea Hawk helicopter. Those are equipped with night vision capabilities.

They are calling this a search and rescue even now, as we are able to tell you that several bodies have been recovered from the waters here. These are waters that are about 58 degrees, 450 feet deep -- 450 deep in some -- feet deep in some places. This is 25 miles off the coast of California near an Anacapa -- the Anacapa Islands.

Now, officials here at Point Mugu Naval Air Station tell us that there were no military maneuvers going on, no aircraft going on, that would have interfered with the Alaska Airlines' pilots' efforts to turn the MD-83 around and head back to Los Angeles International Airport, which is about 25, 30 miles south of where I'm now standing.

That number of seven Coast Guard cutters has gone up to eight, three helicopters, as we mentioned, U.S. Navy aircraft, and two Navy ships are part of these efforts to find and hopefully recover survivors.

Right now, we are told that the search will continue. The U.S. Coast Guard is heading up this search, and the Navy is prepared to stick it out all the way.

Jim? MORET: Jennifer, clearly the search is continuing off the coast some distance from your location. You're at the naval air station. Is there any indication that the efforts are growing as the night progresses?

AUTHER: From where I'm standing, you can't see with your own eye whether or not the efforts are growing. But from what I am told, they are pulling out all the stops on this one in hopes of finding survivors. You won't find anyone here who is not calling this a search and rescue effort, who is not making sure that they mention the name -- the word "survivor."

MORET: CNN's Jennifer Auther, reporting live from Point Mugu Naval Air Station, just up the coast from Los Angeles.

Let's go back now to Catherine Callaway in Atlanta.

CALLAWAY: Greg LeFevre is at the airport in San Francisco and joins us now. That flight was going to make a stop in San Francisco. Tell us what you saw upon arriving there.

GREG LEFEVRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Catherine, of course while the searchers -- the search and rescue operation continues down there in Southern California, the attention there is, of course, to the victims or the potential victims of this crash. Up here, the attention turned right away to the living, that is, to folks left behind.

The first thing that happens here is that the flight 261 is taken off the board, that is, the arrival board reduces by one flight. So 261 as we arrived here was being taken off the board.

Then the airline pages people who were waiting for this flight. Now, here at San Francisco International Airport, this flight was coming into the international terminal. People don't wait at the gate, they wait outside a customs area. Passengers land here, they go through customs, and then once large waiting area. It's about 125 feet wide by about 75 feet. And it's usually very busy.

So the paging sometimes is not heard. In this case, the airline and the folks at the airport sent people, their employees, through the crowd looking for people who were waiting for flight 261, asking people, Are you waiting for Alaska 261? If you are, come with us.

We understand that about four people were informed in this manner and went to a room that Alaska Airlines set aside for just such an occasion. Now, we have been told by a spokesman here at the airport that about 25 people have now assembled, or assembled earlier this evening, in this room. That consisted of family and friends, we are told, and airport and airline staff.

Now, who among these support staff -- what is it that these people do? Some of them are clergy. Earlier this evening, we saw a clergywoman being escorted through the international terminal here by an airport employee to one of these areas. There are also grief counselors and mental health workers who come over from San Francisco Inter -- I'm sorry, San Francisco General Hospital, and San Francisco General is the major trauma center here in San Francisco.

So there is counseling that goes on there. On top of that, the airline dispatches what it calls CARE teams to every stop along its route where passengers from this plane would have been destined, not just here in San Francisco and in Seattle, which was the ultimate destination of flight 261, but also other areas along the way.

Now, we heard earlier from Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Cindy Fraser, and she talked briefly about this process. Here's Ms. Fraser.


CINDY FRASER, ALASKA AIRLINES SPOKESWOMAN: The -- for anyone meeting someone off that flight, particular flight, 261 from Puerto Vallarta, they asked them to -- they do inform them that there has been an airline incident, and would they please come to a specified area.


LEFEVRE: And we understand that the airline will have people here all night long for folks who have -- may have picked up the word late and come to see if there is something for them here to learn.

Catherine, back to you in Atlanta.

CALLAWAY: And this flight was heading on to Seattle? I'm assuming that the same thing is being done there in Seattle.

LEFEVRE: Well, the airline tells us that is true, that they do have a CARE team there at Seatac in Seattle.

CALLAWAY: And has the activity there -- this has been several hours now since the crash -- has it seemed to slow down, or has it increased over the last hour or so?

LEFEVRE: It swelled some shortly after -- in the late afternoon hours, but now it is reduced to very little activity, if any at all.

CALLAWAY: All right. Greg LeFevre reporting to us live from the airport in San Francisco.

And CNN's continuing coverage of the crash of flight 261 will continue after this break.


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