28 Seconds
Part One: Zulu
STORY BY BILL ADAIR PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL SERNE OF THE TIMES STAFF
(published April 4, 2006)
photo
All that remains of USAir Flight 427, on a hill outside Pittsburgh. What would cause the Boeing 737 to spiral out of a blue sky and dive into a gravel road at 300 mph? It would be one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history.
[Photo: AP]
Summer 1995
Great Falls, Virginia

The clock on the nightstand read 2 a.m., but Tom Haueter was wide awake. He usually was a leaden sleeper, dead to the world once his head hit the pillow. But now a nightmare had jolted him awake.

By day, Haueter ran the investigation into the crash of USAir Flight 427. He was the consummate man in charge, all confidence and certainty. At night, though, his doubts sometimes overcame him.

It had been nine months since the USAir plane had corkscrewed out of the blue sky over Pittsburgh and dived into a hill at 300 mph, but Haueter still didn't know why.

He had run many investigations for the National Transportation Safety Board, and this one had started like all the rest. The peculiar smell of death mixed with jet fuel, the adrenaline rush from the first few days examining wreckage. But the rush had long since passed.

Investigators typically figure out the cause a week or two after a crash, but not this time. They had chased countless leads and run test after test after test and come up empty. Now Haueter lay in the dark, tormented at the prospect that he would never solve it.

The nightmare tapped into his deepest fears.

Now another 737 had crashed, and Congress clamored for answers. He sat at the witness table, alone, facing a panel of angry congressmen.

Everyone in the packed hearing room stared at him, convinced he had bungled the investigation. The TV cameras zoomed in to record his every twitch.

"What happened?" a congressman demanded. "Why didn't you do something sooner? Why didn't you ground the fleet?"

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