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Swissair Hit With $50MIL Suit

A visibly pregnant Angelina Jolie waits to attend a plenary session during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006.
AP
While the leaders of Canada and Switzerland joined in mourning the victims of Swissair Flight 111 on Wednesday, lawyers filed a $50 million lawsuit over the crash, blaming technical defects on the aircraft.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in New York on behalf of former boxing champion Jake LaMotta, whose son, Joseph, was among the 229 people killed in the Sept. 2 crash in the Atlantic off Nova Scotia.

The suit claims there were wiring problems on the MD-11 aircraft that should have been corrected. The suit named Swissair; its partner, Delta Airlines; McDonnell Douglas, which manufactured the aircraft, and Boeing Co., which now owns McDonnell Douglas.

The suit is likely to be followed by many others as lawyers try to hold the airlines and aerospace companies liable for an as-yet-unexplained crash that happened 16 minutes after the pilots reported smoke in the cockpit. The trouble started about an hour into a New York-to-Geneva flight.

The litigation contrasted sharply with the mood in Indian Harbor, Nova Scotia, where the largest of a series of memorial services was held at an elementary school sports field.

The names of the 229 victims were read out one by one during the outdoor service at one of the coastal towns near where the jetliner crashed on Sept. 2.

Swiss President Flavio Cotti, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, U.S. Ambassador Gorden Giffin and many relatives of the victims attended.

At the crash site, five miles offshore from the fishing village of Peggy's Cove, divers and navy ships were trying to pinpoint signals to recover the plane's cockpit-voice recorder.

A U.S. Navy ship, the Grapple, arrived from Philadelphia to join the recovery operation, equipped with huge cranes strong enough to lift the plane's fuselage from the seabed.

Investigators thus far have been extremely cautious in avoiding any public speculation about the cause of the crash, but aviation experts not involved in the probe have offered some theories.

One target of suspicion is Kapton, a tape widely used as insulation in commercial jets although the U.S. military banned its use 11 years ago because it was prone to breakdown.

Some experts suggest that Kapton-encased wiring on the Swissair plane may have started smoking, and that the captain may have inadvertently triggered an electrical failure by resetting circuit breakers as part of an emergency checklist of procedures to follow when smoke enters the cabin.

A detailed air traffic control transcript released Tuesday indicates that pilot Urs Zimmermann and co-pilot Stephan Loew were following a checklist as they battled the emergency.

The chief crash investigator, Vic Gerden, has said it is possible there was an electrical failure aboard the plane, causing the flight-data recorder to stop working six minutes before the crash. Before it stopped, the data recorder showed various systems on the plane going out in staes.

Gerden says the possible role of Kapton will be examined, but he has steered away from pointing any fingers and has refused to second-guess the pilots.

"The crew was facing a challenging situation from the start of this," Gerden said. "It was dark, there were some mechanical things that may have caused this data from the flight data recorder to degrade, they had heavy fuel, and they had passengers that had to be prepared for an emergency landing."

Swissair confirmed Wednesday that the plane used Kapton. The airline's chief pilot for MD-11s, Christian Stuessi, told a news conference in Zurich, Switzerland, that no link had been established to Kapton and a possible fire in the cockpit wasn't confirmed. To his knowledge, he said, the manufacturer had never called for the wiring to be replaced.

Swissair said that as smoke appeared in the cockpit of Flight 111, "the crew knew exactly what it had to do:" refer to the emergency checklist.

"The crew must locate the source of the smoke as quickly as possible," Stuessi said. He said Flight 111's crew also did the right thing in trying to bring the plane down to about 10,000 feet, where cabin pressure would allow them to open a cockpit window to vent the smoke.

Wiring problems aboard MD-11s have been the subject of several U.S. Federal Aviation Administration directives warning of potentially hazardous configurations in the cockpit and in a rear console for flight attendants.

Swissair president Jeffrey Katz has said his company complied with all FAA directives. Those directives did not deal with Kapton, however.

Written by David Crary
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