New Jet Mystery: Both Engines Missing, Flight Recorder Underwater

Amid search for engines, plan involves crane, barge, retrieving "black box."

ByABC News
January 16, 2009, 10:11 AM

Jan. 16, 2009— -- Key evidence of what caused a US Airways jetliner to make an emergency splash landing in the Hudson River Thursday remains hidden in the frigid waters and out of reach for investigators, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a news conference today.

Both the aircraft's engines and its flight recorder, or "little black box," have yet to be pulled from their watery resting place because of harsh weather and water conditions, NTSB member Kathyn "Kitty" Higgins said.

While investigators are using sonar to scour the Hudson for the plane's engines, which are believed to have detached after impact, the flight recorders, veritable treasure troves of in-flight information for the doomed plane's last moments, still rest in the tail section of the craft.

"We made an effort to try and remove the recorders while the plane was in the water," Higgins said. But the limited dive time caused by the extreme cold and powerful currents made retrieving the recorders "not possible."

The NTSB plans to hoist the plane from the water Saturday morning around 10 a.m. using cranes and to load it onto a barge, at which point the "black boxes" will be recovered, according to Higgins. Then the plane will be taken to a "secure" location where it will be examined by investigators.

The NTSB has not interviewed Capt. Chesley Sullenberger III, the pilot of the aircraft and hero of the day, but plans to conduct that interview Saturday morning. The pilot took a congratulatory call from President Bush today.

"The pilot is the ultimate decision-maker. Why he made the choices he did is what we want to learn," Higgins said. "We want to look into everything that made yesterday so survivable."

Salvage crews discovered the engines were missing while trying to determine how to haul the jetliner out of the icy river.

Those engines likely hold important clues needed to make as accurate a determination as possible on what exactly caused the plane to lose power soon after accelerating off the runaway at LaGuardia Airport in New York.

The pilot reported two bird strikes shortly after takeoff and said that he was losing power. The Airbus 320's engine is built to withstand a 4-pound bird strike.

"One of the reasons we want to get the engines is because there will be physical evidence retained. ... If, in fact, there was any kind of damage from a bird, it will show up," Higgins said. "It's a very important piece of the puzzle."

In a quirky indication that the plane actually had good luck, the New York State Lottery said the numbers 1549 -- the flight's designation -- are sold out through next Tuesday night on the Win 4. Wagering on numbers 1549 has been cut off because the lottery has already reached the $5 million cap.

A day after the plane's spectacular splashdown opposite Manhattan's skyscrapers, New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the fact that no one died in the crash into the icy river was more than luck and he handed out commendations for the miracle rescue of a jetliner.

He also said he was waiting to give a key to the city to the plane's pilot, Sullenberger.

Passengers agreed that "Sully," as he's known, and co-pilot Jeff Skiles were the heroes of the day. They also credited flight attendants Sheila Dail, Doreen Welsh and Donna Dent, for helping to make the plane's landing a success.

"They're the Tiger Woods of pilots," said passenger Matt Kane. "Unbelievable."

An aviation source who has been with the plane's crew told ABC News the pilots are resting.

"They are incredibly calm, very professional, not in shock whatsoever. They are handling this better than most people should," the source said.

As the rescued passengers finally stopped shivering, stories of terror and bravery from the drama emerged.

The rescue began at 3:29 p.m. when Capt. Vince Lombardi of a New York Waterway ferry noticed something odd in the water.

"I turned to my deckhand, and I said, that's an odd-looking boat. He said, 'I think that's an airplane,'" Lombardi said.

With his own passengers on board, Lombardi sped to the crash site. Just three minutes after impact, Lombardi nosed his ferry close to the plane.

"I went to the wings first, because I noticed those people were in knee-deep water there and I know hypothermia would have set in," he said. "A few people were cheering. Some were crying, 'Get me out of the water, it's cold.'"

Lombardi loaded 56 passengers on his boat.

Moments later, other ferries arrived. Vincent Lucante's boat pulled the youngest passengers, two babies, from a life raft.

"We brought them up to the second deck of the ferry where it's warmest and they started to cry, which was the best sound we could hear," Lucante said.

John Rizzo was on the first fireboat to arrive -- just seven minutes after impact.

"You don't have time to really think about the situation until after everything's over. I just think it's a miracle," he said.