PORT HUENEME, Calif. - Moments before it crashed, Alaska Airlines Flight 261 started "tumbling, spinning, nose-down" as it hurtled in a violent plunge toward the Pacific Ocean, a federal investigator said Wednesday.
There were no signs of fire or smoke when the jetliner hit the water in one piece, killing all 88 people aboard, witnesses told the National Transportation Safety Board.
NTSB member John Hammerschmidt provided the witness accounts after the second day of investigation by the agency, which is trying to determine the cause of the crash.
The NTSB also will rely on radar data, information from the "black boxes" and a photograph to piece together the terrifying few minutes between the pilots' first report of mechanical problems and the plane's crash in the Pacific.
Earlier Wednesday, searchers recovered the cockpit voice recorder. The device, which records conversations and other sounds in the cockpit, was found in 700 feet of water by a remote-controlled robot shortly before sundown.
"As luck would have it, almost literally true, as soon as they got down to the bottom they found the first box," said Navy Capt. Terry Labrecque.
The search continued for the flight data recorder, a companion box that records information about the plane's mechanical operation. Searchers had heard a ping that they believed pinpointed the box's location on the ocean floor.
Minutes before it crashed Monday, Flight 261 reported problems with part of the tail called the horizontal stabilizer. The plane was cleared for an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport.
Still a mystery is what exactly went wrong with the plane's tail controls and what the pilots did to try to fix it as the plane hugged the Southern California coast on its way to San Francisco and then Seattle.
As it passed over Anacapa Island, just off the coast, a witness heard several popping sounds, watched the plane turn, then hit the ocean, Hammerschmidt said.
"The aircraft was twisting, flying erratically, nose rocking," the witness told investigators, Hammerschmidt said. Pilots in the vicinity described the plane as "tumbling, spinning, nose-down, continuous roll, corkscrewing and inverted," he said.
Wednesday, there was a new report the plane had mechanical problems on its flight to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The Seattle Times reported there were problems with the horizontal stabilizer on the flight to Mexico. The stabilizer keeps the plane flying level.
Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Evans in Seattle denied the report. "We stand by what we said earlier this week, which is that we're not aware of any maintenance anomalies with this aircraft," Evans said.
Hammerschmidt said the board was looking into the earlier flight and would interview those pilots today.
Before Flight 261 crashed, the pilots also radioed a Seattle maintenance crew about the problem, and the NTSB on Wednesday began analyzing recordings of that call.
"Obviously these pilots were struggling to maintain control of this aircraft for a significant period of time," NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said in Washington, D.C. "It's going to be very important to this investigation."
Meanwhile, a jammed horizontal stabilizer forced an American Airlines MD-80 to return to Phoenix 20 minutes after it took off for Dallas on Wednesday. The plane is part of the same series of aircraft as the Alaska MD-83 that crashed.
Federal investigators were having the flight data recorder from the American Airlines plane sent to them, said Phil Frame, a spokesman for the NTSB in Washington. Frame knew of no link between the American Airlines incident and the Alaska Airlines investigation, but "it may have piqued their interest."
Earlier Wednesday, the search for survivors was called off over the protest of some family members who held out hope that someone might still be alive in the chilly waters of the Santa Barbara Channel.
"We have far exceeded our estimate of survivability," Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thomas Collins said.
The search for survivors had gone on for 41 hours and included dozens of Coast Guard, Navy and civilian ships, boats and aircraft that combed a 1,100-square-mile area.
As the operation entered a third day, the Navy took over control from the Coast Guard.
Two other remote-control submersibles were either on scene or en route, as well as ships with side-scan sonar equipment that can make detailed maps of debris on the bottom.
The wreckage is about 700 feet down - well below the 300-foot limit for safe operation by divers.