28 Seconds
Part One: Zulu
Page 4
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[Times art: David Williams]
It was 7:03 on a warm Thursday evening in Hopewell Township, Pa., when the 737 fell from the sky. Hundreds of people at the Green Garden Plaza shopping center and a nearby soccer field saw the plane spiral toward a hill.

Trees blocked their view of the crash, but they couldn't miss the fireball. A plume rose from the hill and drifted across Route 60, over the Beaver Lakes Country Club.

At fire stations throughout Pittsburgh, firefighters heard a series of tones and then the words "Zulu at Pittsburgh International Airport." A Zulu call meant a disaster with at least 20 people killed. More than 40 fire trucks, ambulances and police cars raced to the crash site 10 miles northwest of the airport.

When Engine 921 of the Hopewell Volunteer Fire Department reached the woods at the top of the hill, Capt. James Rock hopped out and grabbed an ax and a pry bar. A professional firefighter at a nearby Air Force base, he was a veteran of drills rescuing people from plane crashes. He dashed through the woods, ready to pry passengers out of the wreckage and save some lives.

He saw mangled luggage and airplane seats. Then he saw a man's hand on the ground. He looked around feverishly; there was no one to save.

Firefighters pulled hoses into the woods and sprayed water on the wreckage and the trees to douse the flames. Others ran through the woods, shouting for survivors.

"Anybody here?" they yelled. "Anybody need any help?"

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Lead investigator Tom Haueter brought a refreshing dose of Midwestern charm to the NTSB. “Holy mackerel!” he would say. He was raised in Enon, Ohio, which he liked to say is None spelled backward.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
There was no reply.

At the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, operations officer Sharon Battle quickly and calmly placed calls to the White House, the FBI, the CIA.

"We'd like to give you a briefing," she told each of them. "USAir Flight 427, a Boeing 737, O'Hare to Pittsburgh at 6,000 feet. Radio and radar contact lost. Unknown fatalities or survivors at this time. Unknown if any ground injuries."

Then she called the accident investigators from the FAA and the NTSB. She found Tom Haueter at his house in Great Falls, Va., just as he sat down with a bowl of popcorn to watch the sci-fi movie, The Forbidden Planet.

He wasn't supposed to be on call to head the NTSB's Go Team, but he had switched with another investigator who wanted the week off. It would be Haueter's job to figure out what happened to Flight 427.

Within minutes he had two phone lines going, discussing arrangements with the FAA and his colleagues at the NTSB.

"We've got a bad one," he told his boss Ron Schleede. "USAir just lost a 737. It went off the radar near Pittsburgh."

Haueter's first priority wasn't to solve the mystery, it was to mobilize his team to leave for Pittsburgh. He had to arrange for an FAA plane and find a hotel to be the NTSB's command center.

After he picked a Holiday Inn near Hopewell, he had to worry about trivial details like coffee. In the penny-pinching world of government work, NTSB rules were crystal clear on coffee: The agency would not pay for it. Hotels often provided big buffet tables of regular and decaf without getting approval, then included the coffee on the bill.

Haueter told a Holiday Inn employee, "We don't want to see the big coffee bar set up."

* * *

An hour after the crash, a USAir manager named Ralph Miller arrived at the company's headquarters beside Washington National Airport and made his way to the conference room that was about to be converted into the "Next of Kin Room."

Miller watched as technicians hooked up 25 telephones and the computer he would use for the laborious process of figuring out who was killed on Flight 427.

Everything in the conference room was battleship gray -- the walls, the table, the chairs. The color fit the mood. The 25 USAir managers assembled here would take calls from frantic relatives and then, once the list was complete, call back and deliver the horrible news.

Calls were pouring into USAir's reservation centers from friends and relatives desperate to find out if their loved ones were on the plane. They were screaming, crying and shouting for information. The USAir agents could say if other flights had landed safely, but they were not allowed to say a word about Flight 427. If a caller asked about a passenger on that flight, the agents could only promise to call back.

This was USAir's fifth crash since 1989, but the company still was woefully ill-prepared for handling grieving relatives. Someone had drafted a crash plan a few weeks earlier, but it was sitting on an executive's desk, waiting to be approved.

Many of the 25 managers in the room had worked on the airline's Charlotte crash two months earlier. They took frequent breaks, walking through the empty hallways of the eighth floor, shaking their heads in bewilderment.

Two crashes in two months. Why us? What have we done to deserve this?

Determining who is on a plane is surprisingly difficult. People make reservations but don't show up. Names get misspelled. First and last names are transposed. Long names are cut off by the limits of reservation computers. Babies don't need a ticket and may not show up on any list.

Miller hooked up a conference call with USAir employees in Pittsburgh and Chicago and went through the names one by one, comparing reservations with the tickets that had been collected at Gate F6 in Chicago. It was slow going.

Of the 126 passengers on the list, there was confusion about five or six. A 2-year-old girl sitting with her mother did not have a ticket. Several Department of Energy employees had been booked on later flights but used their tickets to take Flight 427. The reservation and ticket totals didn't match.

After two hours, the list still wasn't complete. As they discussed the last few names, Miller worried: Would he miss somebody? Would he put someone on the list who had not boarded the plane? He could not afford a single mistake.

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