Clues bared in airliner crash probe
Seventy-two small bits of metal and wood — the incomplete elements of a jigsaw puzzle that may tell why 44 persons died suddenly and violently — already have told part of their story.
The Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington, DC, announced last night that its investigation of the mid-Pacific crash of a Pan American World Airways Stratocruiser has revealed that:
1: Autopsies on the 19 bodies recovered has shown that 14 of them contained “excessive amounts of carbon monoxide,” a gas generated by incomplete burning — which, doctors say, could only be present if the passengers had inhaled smoke.
2: The battered wreckage recovered from the ocean shows no evidence of cabin fire and that it would have shown it had fire occurred.
3: The fragments show that no bomb or gasoline vapor explosion occurred.
4: There was fire briefly after the huge craft splashed into the sea.
5: None of the passengers carried excessive amounts of insurance, which tended to discount sabotage for personal gain.
6: Study of wreckage has indicated that the plane did not “throw” a propeller, and that the right wing may have dipped into the water while the plane was approaching at a landing angle, not plunging into the water steeply.
An unusual announcement
The CAB’s announcement last night was highly unusual. The agency issued a brief preview statement of the evidence to be explored when a public hearing into the disaster of “The Romance of the Skies” opens Wednesday at San Francisco’s Sir Francis Drake Hotel.
Painstaking scientific detective work has gone into the preparation for the hearing that will attempt to explain just why the $1,500,000 airplane and its human cargo disappeared. Only 500 pounds of wreckage were retrieved from the sea by Navy crews after one of the largest peacetime fleets in Pacific history searched over a 100,000 square mile area for six days.
A four-by-seven foot section of bulkhead was the largest piece recovered from the giant craft.
“If we find the answer, it will be a product of modern technology and an estimated 9,500 man-hours of plain, hard work,” the CAB said. “If we do not succeed, it will be because the mute evidence of 19 bodies… and 72 pieces of wreckage simply did not tell the story.”
“The Romance of the Skies” was’ bound from San Francisco to Honolulu and was about midway last November 8 when its skipper, Capt. Gordon H Brown, 40, of Palo Alto, made a routine position report. “Pan Am 944,” he radioed, was at 10,000 feet at 5:34 pm and conditions were normal.
It was not long after — perhaps only a few minutes — that flight of the four-engine craft ended in tragedy.
Ditching procedures were used
Last night’s glimpse of the evidence to which CAB experts will testify indicates that the big craft might have been nearing a successful ditching, or water alighting, when something went wrong.
The complete testimony and its evaluation together may enable complete reconstruction of those last few minutes, in which passengers wearing life vests waited for life or death. The recovered bodies showed that ditching precautions had been taken before the crash.
Evidence of the carbon monoxide in the bodies of the dead adds further mystery to the investigation. Doctors say that evidence of “excessive amounts” of the deadly gas seems to indicate that the passengers breathed smoke before their deaths.
Part of the effort of determining what happened aboard “Pan Am 944” has been spent attempting to interpret a short length of tape recording with a garbled message, believed to be the last broadcast from the craft.
Top photo: Romance of the Skies in a 1952 publicity shot