Special Reports

Tragedy of Flight 261: Shock takes hold

PORT HUENEME, Calif. - The pilots of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 struggled with a sudden control problem for at least six minutes before the jetliner plummeted into the ocean with 88 people aboard, federal investigators said Tuesday.

The last minutes of the MD-83's flight Monday may have been witnessed by pilots aboard four other aircraft, and the National Transportation Safety Board was seeking to interview them.

The plane plunged from 17,000 feet and crashed nose-down into the Pacific after the pilot reported problems with the horizontal stabilizer, a wing-like structure on the tail that controls the pitch of the aircraft's nose.

Investigators at the crash site also said Tuesday they had heard a pinging from the ocean, apparently from the flight recorders, which could reveal exactly what went wrong with the stabilizer.

The search was concentrated on a debris field about 10 miles offshore and about 40 miles northwest of the Los Angeles airport. Coast Guard, Navy and private vessels were joined by military airplanes.

Nearly a day after the accident, searchers had pulled four bodies - one man, two women and an infant - from the sea, which is 300 to 750 feet deep in the area. Hopes dimmed that anyone aboard Flight 261 survived in the 58-degree water.

"This is still a search for human life," Coast Guard Adm. Tom Collins said. "The challenge is time. As time ticks off, risks go up."

At day's end, 11 relatives and friends of victims huddled on Port Hueneme beach, staring out across the receding tide as the sinking sun painted the Pacific horizon pink and brilliant orange.

The flight had left Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for San Francisco and Seattle with 83 passengers and five crew members. The passengers included three airline employees, four employees of its sister airline Horizon and 25 relatives or friends of the employees taking advantage of free standby flights.

Monday, Drew Gottschall, 45, a Channel Islands National Park worker, was putting up a trail sign near the Anacapa Island lighthouse when he heard the jet, looked up and watched it slam into the water 2 1/2 miles to the north.

"The plane made a quick entry into the water upon impact, and disappeared," Gottschall said in a statement released by the Park Service.

"There was a point as I was watching the descent of the plane where I felt hopeless," Gottschall said. "It had a finality to it that came very quickly. After the plane hit the water and disappeared, there was just me and the seagulls out there."

The underwater pinging was pinpointed by a Navy team. Investigators were uncertain whether the pings were from one or both recorders. On some planes, the horizontal stabilizer is monitored by the plane's data recorder. The other "black box" records pilot conversations.

If the data recorder was programmed to monitor the stabilizer, it would reveal the condition of the device's electrical and hydraulic controls. If not, officials would have to deduce what happened to the device by studying how other systems performed before the crash, said Barry Schiff, an aviation consultant and former TWA pilot.

The stabilizer typically is controlled by the automatic pilot but also can be manipulated in the cockpit. Pilots are trained extensively in what to do in case of stabilizer malfunctions. If the problem can't be fixed, the nose of the aircraft can move up or down uncontrollably until gravity forces the plane into a dive.

Both pilots were Alaska Airlines veterans. Capt. Ted Thompson, 53, was hired in 1982 and had 10,400 flying hours with the company. First Officer William Tansky, 57, was hired in 1985 and had 8,047 flying hours with the Seattle-based airline.

The investigation was being directed by a 10-member NTSB team that arrived in Port Hueneme early Tuesday.

The NTSB would be interviewing as many as four pilots who might have seen Flight 261's final minutes from their planes - a Skywest flight, a private aircraft, another Alaska Airlines jet and a fourth plane that was not identified.

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SIDEBAR: The Victims

1. Lawrence Baldridge, Seattle

2. Renato Bermudez, Granada Hills, Calif.

3. Michael Bernard

4. Malcolm Branson, Seward, Alaska

5. William Bryant

6. Ryan Busche

7. Abigail Busche

8. Gabriella Chavez, San Diego

9. Jacqueyn Choate, Santa Cruz, Calif.

10. Toni Choate, Santa Cruz

11. Sheri Christiansen, San Francisco

12. Carol Clemetson, Seattle

13. Spencer Clemetson, Seattle

14. David Clemetson, Seattle

15. Blake Clemetson, Seattle

16. Miles Clemetson, Seattle

17. Coriander Clemetson, Seattle

18. John Cuthbertson

19. Avine Deo, Seattle

20. Monte Donaldson, Seattle

21. Dean Forshee, Concord, Calif.

22. Jerri Fosmire

23. Allen Friedman, Round Lake Beach, Ill.

24. Jean Gandesbery, San Francisco

25. Robert Gandesbery, San Francisco

26. Meghann Hall, Enumclaw

27. Aloysius Han, Oakland

28. Robert Hovey, San Francisco

29. Russell Ing

30. Rachel Janosik, Enumclaw

31. Karl Karlsson, San Bruno, Calif.

32. Carol Karlsson, Petaluma, Calif.

33. Joseph Knight, Monroe, Wash.

34. Linda Knight, Monroe

35. William Knudson, Sacramento

36. Rodrigo Laigo

37. Naomi Laigo

38. Bradley Long, Sacramento

39. James Luque, San Francisco

40. Juan Marquez, San Francisco

41-42. Ileana Ost and infant Emily Ost, San Bruno

43. Bob Ost, San Bruno

44. Cynthia Oti, Oakland

45. Sarah Pearson, Seattle

46. Grace Pearson, Seattle

47. Rodney Pearson, Seattle

48. Rachel Pearson, Seattle

49. Deborah Penna

50. Jean Permison, Scotts Valley, Calif.

51. Stanford Poll, Mercer Island

52. Anjesh Prasad, Seattle

53. Avinish Prasad, Seattle

54. Paul "Clark" Pulanco, Seattle

55. Charles Russell, Hayward, Calif.

56. Barbara Ryan

57. Bradford Ryan

58. James Ryan, Redmond

59. Terry Ryan

60. Ellen Salyer, Sebastopol, Calif.

61. Stacy Schuyler, Milton, Wash.

62. Donald Shaw, Shelton, Wash.

63. Charlene Sipe, Seattle

64. Joan Smith, Belmont, Calif.

65. Ryan Sparks, Enumclaw

66. Harry Stasinos, Seattle

67. Thomas Stockley, Seattle

68. Margaret Stockley, Seattle

69. Janice Stokes, Ketchikan, Alaska

70. Morrie Thompson, Fairbanks, Alaska

71. Thelma Thompson, Fairbanks

72. Sheryl Thompson

73. Robert Thorgrimson, Poulsbo

74. Lorna Thorgrimson, Poulsbo

75. Nina Voronoff

76. Colleen Whorley, Seattle

77. Steve Wilkie, San Francisco,

78. Bob Williams

79. Patty Williams

At the request of two families, four passengers' names are not being released.