Black Box May Hold Clues to Fiery Crash

Officials say recorder was recovered from jet that burst into flames in Denver.

December 22, 2008, 12:01 PM

Dec. 22, 2008— -- The black box recovered from the cockpit of the airplane that rolled off a runway and burst into flames Saturday in Denver is thought to contain information that will help the investigation, a National Transportation Safety Board member said today.

"We understand that there is good data on those recorders," said NTSB member Robert Sumwalt this afternoon in Denver. He said that a team of investigators will soon begin what's often a three-day process of deciphering the cockpit voice recorder.

As federal investigators continue to examine what caused the plane to veer off the runway and catch fire, it now appears that crosswinds may have been a factor in the accident that injured 38 people.

The Continental Airlines flight was fighting crosswinds estimated at 31 miles an hour as it sped down the runway.

Sources said pilots used the tail rudder to counteract the wind and keep the plane straight. Investigators will want to know if those controls relaxed, causing the plane to veer left. It wasn't until then, sources said, that pilots tried to abort the takeoff.

The plane veered left, careering into a 40-foot ravine where the right side caught fire and the fuselage partially buckled. One engine and most of the landing gear were completely sheared off.

Still, ABC News consultant John Nance said crosswinds couldn't be the only reason for the crash.

"Crosswinds alone cannot come anywhere close to explaining this accident," he said. "We have plenty of capability of keeping these planes on a dry runway."

Today various investigative teams spent the day collecting information -- whether on site inside the wrecked plane, speaking with passengers or reviewing maintenance records -- looking for any sign of engine problems or other plane malfunctions. There is no indication at this point of engine trouble.

Of particular interest is the "perishable evidence," such as skidmarks in the snow, that investigators are eager to evaluate before it's too late.

Investigative teams plan to come together later tonight to report on their progress.

Sumwalt also said the captain of the plane, who was injured in the crash, has not yet been interviewed by the NTSB. Continental confirmed today that the plane's captain remains in the hospital.

"If they're not physically or mentally able to be interviewed, then we can't do that," Sumwalt said.

The weekend crash was the third major accident in three years in which all passengers survived.

"That tells us a lot. It tells us we are doing a lot better in getting people off of aircraft and designing aircraft," said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation. "When you have those types of results, you can't say it is luck."

According to a study by the Flight Safety Foundation, accidents in which planes run off the runway make up more than a third of all accidents worldwide.

Just after 8 p.m. ET Saturday, Continental Airlines flight 1404 started on its journey from Denver to Houston.

When the plane finally slid to a stop, passengers and crew members escaped through emergency chutes. The 110 passengers and five crew members escaped from the burning plane, though 38 sustained injuries and five remain in the hospital.

"There was significant fire damage inside the cabin, with the [overhead] luggage compartments being described as melted and dropping down onto the seats," said Denver Fire Department Airport Division Chief Patrick Hynes.

Denver Crash Terrifying for Passengers

For the passengers, it was a terrifying start to their holiday travel. Maria and Gabriel Trejos, who were on the plane with their 13-month-old son, Elijah, recounted the horrifying ordeal on "Good Morning America" today.

"We started feeling like the plane was slipping or sliding to the left," said Maria Trejos. "I looked out the window, and it was veering -- veering off the runway. And that was our first indication that something was happening."

Gabriel Trejos, who was holding his son in his lap, said the "seats were going loose."

"We were airborne there for a moment, [then] the plane hit the ground quite hard," he said. "And I was just hanging onto the baby as hard as I could, you know, making sure he wasn't going to fly out anywhere." He braced himself, trying to keep Elijah safe without crushing him.

The couple said that after the plane came to a stop, the shocked passengers remained calm for a moment, letting the reality of the incident sink in. Maria Trejos asked a man who had started screaming that the plane could explode, to calm down in an effort to keep the children onboard from becoming more frightened, her husband said.

Maria Trejos said she headed toward a rear exit, but a man attempting to get his luggage out of an overhead bin blocked her path. So she passed her son to her husband, and they found another exit. From there, they slid down a wet, slippery wing.

Nance said this morning on "Good Morning America" that the cause of the crash will take time to figure out.

But travelers preparing to depart for the holidays don't have an overwhelming cause for worry, according to Nance, who said the odds of something like Saturday's crash happening are low. On top of that, he added, the plane held together, a sign of "how tough these aircraft really are. Because they're not designed to go off the runway."

ABC News' Kate Barrett contributed to this report.

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