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Wed, March 26, 2003

Families hope for answers in final report of Swissair Flight 111 crash

In his progress report, Vic Gerden, lead investigator into the crash of Swissair Flight 111 off Peggy's Cove, N.S., Sept. 2, 1998, said work has almost ended in hangar at Shearwater, N.S., where a nine-metre front section of the plane has been reconstructed from wreckage. (CPArchive/Andrew Vaughan)

HALIFAX (CP) - For 4½ long years, Barbara Fetherolf has searched for an answer to why her daughter - a bright, energetic 16-year-old - stepped on to a plane operated by one of the world's most respected airlines and never came home.

On Thursday, the Transportation Safety Board will release its final report into the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111 off Nova Scotia, but Fetherolf fears she will be no closer to the truth. "We're still in shock and we need to know why, why she's dead," she said Wednesday from her home in Palm Beach, Fla.

"My fear is that it will be a little like a laundry list of contributing causes and no ignition source."

Tara Fetherolf was on her way to school in Switzerland when the Swissair MD-11 plunged into the ocean, killing all 229 people on board.

Since the crash, the girl's mother has pressed governments and safety agencies for a cause. She has kept files on aviation issues and started a Web site to update family members.

"It's ruined our lives, totally destroyed us, and we'd like to know the answers - like anybody who has lost a child," said Fetherolf.

Investigators know the jetliner was disabled after a fire raced along its wiring, leading to a massive electrical failure. But they haven't identified the cause of the fire and likely won't in its report, to be made public in Halifax.

Sources say there will be 22 recommendations in the lengthy document, some of which will deal with the plane's wiring. It's also thought investigators will mention a controversial inflight entertainment system that has come under scrutiny in recent years.

Investigators combing through millions of pieces of debris recovered 21 short-circuited electrical wires, including at least seven that came from the system. A wire that shorts can cause a spark or fire that could ignite other materials.

Some aviation experts believe the entertainment unit is key to the fire.

Gerry Einarsson, an avionics specialist in Ottawa, said recently that the system was hastily installed on the MD-11 and proper inspections weren't done to ensure it could operate safely.

He called the system a "power-hungry monster" that demanded an excessive amount of energy. Einarsson, a former Transport Canada engineer, blames the American Federal Aviation Administration in part for allegedly shirking its duties in certifying the system - something he and others say the Transportation Safety Board should address in its report.

The system, which allowed passengers to gamble, play video games and watch movies, was found during test flights to raise cabin temperatures and cause hard drives in passengers seats to fail.

Ian Shaw, whose daughter Stephanie was also killed on plane, also suspects the gaming unit for sparking the deadly fire.

"My conviction is that the entertainment system, which Swissair immediately took off all their flights after the accident, was most probably the cause of the overheating of the wiring," said Shaw, who moved to Nova Scotia from Switzerland following the crash.

The safety board wouldn't comment on the details of the report, but a spokesman said it will outline a chain of events that led to the accident and that the findings are quite "specific."

The report is also expected to briefly mention Kapton wiring, a disputed insulation that has been banned in some U.S. military aircraft because of its propensity to chafe, crack or break down.

The safety board, which has spent about $60 million on the investigation, recovered pieces of charred Kapton wiring in the area where the fire was believed to have started in the ceiling behind the pilots' seats.

Investigators found evidence of arcing, a phenomenon in which the outer insulation is cracked or chafed and the wire is exposed to another surface. Electrical sparks can escape and set off a chain reaction that burns along the wire almost like a fuse.

The FAA responded to the Swissair probe by ordering operators to inspect cockpit wiring on all MD-11s.

Others are hoping the safety board demands changes to the cumbersome checklist pilots go through when they encounter smoke in the cockpit.

The Swissair pilots spent close to 10 minutes going through a 208-step checklist after they detected smoke, eating up valuable time some say should have been spent in diverting the plane to the nearest airport.

The TSB issued a recommendation in 2000 that planes land quickly in the event of smoke and that checklists be streamlined. The board also recommended that metallized Mylar blanket insulation be reduced or eliminated after finding it helped feed the fire.

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