Officials investigating the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 must decide whether to try and recover the 84 bodies presumably entombed in the aircraft's fuselage or leave them in their watery grave.
Four bodies, including that of an infant, were recovered from the sea within hours of the crash of the MD-83 jetliner which nosedived into the Pacific Ocean on Monday with 83 passengers and five crew members on board.
National Transportation Safety Board chairman Jim Hall met with family members and friends of those lost in the crash on Thursday night in Los Angeles to discuss what investigators were doing and what the board's next move might be — including what steps to take regarding the 84 missing bodies.
The families of the 88 victims of the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crash viewed the site where their loved ones perished Thursday, and officials announced they have recovered the plane's flight data recorder.
This means that both "black boxes" aboard the airliner are now in the hands of officials trying to determine the cause of the crash. Investigators found the cockpit voice recorder on Wednesday.
An NTSB spokesman said the flight data recorder would be rushed to Washington, where investigators were already studying the cockpit voice recorder.
The flight data recorder was found not far from the cockpit voice recorder, which was discovered by a robot submarine more than 600 feet below the ocean's surface off the Southern California coast.
Navy crews recovered Flight 261's cockpit flight data recorder with a robot that retrieved it from a canyon. It should show the positions of the plane's controls and whether a problem with the horizontal stabilizer was merely a symptom of a larger failure that led to Monday's crash. The robot also located the plane's tail.
The submersible also sent up video images of a piece of the fuselage with four windows, several large pieces up to six feet wide and numerous smaller pieces. The airline's logo — the smiling face of an Alaskan Eskimo — is clearly visible on the tail, said John Hammerschmidt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The robot also captured pictures of the horizontal stabilizer, which has been the focus of the investigation, he said. NTSB officials said they were not able to describe the condition of the tail and stabilizer.
A U.S. Navy ship is using a sonar scanner to "map" the wreckage on the ocean floor for use in the investigation.
Earlier, investigators said the pilots in the crash are heard speaking on the voice recorder of the plane flying upside down in the final moments before it tumbled nose-down from the sky, hurtling toward the Pacific Ocean from 17,000 feet.
Stabilizer Never Caused Crash Before Monday
Federal records said jammed or out-of-control horizontal plane stabilizers have led to at least six emergency landings — but never a crash.
Records show stabilizer jamming is rare and has never driven a plane totally out of control.
An Associated Press review found that at least 20 in-flight problems with stabilizers were serious enough to be reported to the government since 1979.
In two-thirds of those cases, the flights reached their intended destination; the others made emergency landings.
Pilots Knew of Problem Before Crash
The NTSB's Jim Hall said Thursday the cockpit voice recorder recorded the pilots discussing stabilizer problems for 30 minutes before the crash.
The pilots apparently thought they could control the problem, but something went terribly wrong and at one point they are heard saying they are flying "inverted."
"The crew made references to being inverted that are consistent with the witness statements to that effect," Hall said. "Then control was suddenly lost."
The plane was in one piece and there were no signs of fire or smoke when it hit the water, witnesses told NTSB investigators.
The voice recorder corresponds with one witness' report of hearing several popping sounds, watching the plane turn and then plunge into the water as it passed over Anacapa Island, just a few miles off the coast of southern California.
"The aircraft was twisting, flying erratically, nose rocking," the witness told investigators, said NTSB investigator John Hammerschmidt. Pilots in the vicinity described the plane as "tumbling, spinning, nose-down, continuous roll, corkscrewing and inverted," he said.
Hall said NTSB officials in California were interviewing the crew who flew the Alaska Airlines plane on the previous leg as well as any people involved in servicing the plane in Mexico, its last stop before the crash.
Three buses carrying 100 relatives of crash victims left Los Angeles with a police escort for a private memorial Thursday at Point Mugu. They carried red and white bouquets of baby's breath and carnations along with white carton boxes that contained a lunch, suntan lotion, tissues, pen and paper.
"The purpose of (the pen and paper) is to allow them to ... either keep a journal, write a note and leave it or maybe communicate their feelings to one another," said Barbara Jean, a worker with the Red Cross, which helped organize the trip.
NTSB spokeswoman Lauren Peduzzi said the event was "very private and very personal."
Point Mugu, a promontory sticking out into the Pacific, is the closest point to the crash site, about 7.5 miles away. "It was an informal visit, a private visit. The airline (Alaska) provided them with flowers. They could leave them on the beach or take them back to their hotel," Peduzzi said.
The search for survivors was called off Wednesday over the protest of some family members who held out hope that someone might still be alive in the chilly waters of the Santa Barbara Channel.
The search for survivors had gone on for 41 hours and included dozens of Coast Guard, Navy and civilian ships, boats and aircraft that combed an 1,100-square-mile area.
An Alaska Airlines spokesman said the carrier would retire the flight number 261 out of respect for the dead. Alaska Airlines employees held a minute of silence Thursday at 4:26 p.m. to mark the time the jetliner was thought to have gone down.
Plans were being made for a memorial service on Saturday in Port Hueneme for family members and friends, government officials and local fishermen who helped recover bodies and pieces of the ill-fated plane.
NTSB to Investigate If Problem Was Known
The Arizona Republic reported Thursday that another Alaska Airlines flight made an emergency landing last year because of stabilizer problems.
On Wednesday, the Seattle Times reported Flight 261 had horizontal stabilizer problems on its trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the leg before the ill-fated flight bound for San Francisco and Seattle.
Airline spokesman Jack Evans in Seattle denied the report: "We stand by what we said earlier this week, which is that we're not aware of any maintenance anomalies with this aircraft.
Another plane made an emergency landing in Phoenix Wednesday after reporting the same mechanical problem that may have contributed to Monday's fatal crash. The American Airlines MD-80 made the emergency landing after the pilot reported a possible stabilizer problem about 20 minutes after taking off for Dallas, said airport spokeswoman Suzanne Luber.
Hall said on Thursday the NTSB has the tapes from that flight and "stressed" the NTSB currently sees "no connection" between the two planes problems at this time.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report