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.
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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.