A federal investigator said Wednesday Alaska Airlines Flight 261 started "tumbling, spinning, nose-down" as it hurtled toward the Pacific Ocean.

The plane was in one piece and there were no signs of fire or smoke when it hit the water, killing all 88 people aboard, witnesses told National Transportation Safety Board investigators.

NTSB member John Hammerschmidt said one witness heard several popping sounds, watched the plane turn and then plunge into the water as it passed over Anacapa Island, just off the Southern California coast.

"The aircraft was twisting, flying erratically, nose rocking," the witness told investigators, Hammerschmidt said. Pilots in the vicinity described the plane as "tumbling, spinning, nose-down, continuous roll, corkscrewing and inverted," he said.

One 'Black Box' Recovered

NTSB spokesman Terry Williams announced Wednesday evening that one of the "black boxes" from Alaska Airlines Flight 261 that crashed on Monday has been recovered.

The remote-controlled underwater robot Scorpio retrieved the cockpit voice recorder — which is actually bright orange despite its popular name — just before sundown Wednesday.

The device would have recorded conversations and any other sounds in the cockpit during the flight.

Crews were still searching for the plane's flight data recorder, which also could prove crucial in determining why it plunged from the sky while heading for an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport.

Officials at the Ventura County Coroner's office said it could take months before body parts of all of the victims are identified.

Pictures Revealed

Investigators seeking clues in the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 got a break earlier Wednesday when pictures of the plane's tragic trajectory surfaced.

The pictures were taken inadvertently by Kim Tepass, as she was photographing Monday's sunset. .

Investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board have interviewed the woman and have the pictures in their custody. The shots could help investigators in determining the factors of the crash, which killed 88 people when it apparently plunged nose first into the Pacific Ocean.

Search for Survivors Ends

Earlier Wednesday, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Tom Collins announced that the search for survivors of Flight 261 was being called off.

He said factors such as good search conditions in a "tight" debris field, "significant assets" in the air and water and "temperature versus time" contributed to his decision. The announcement came two days after the Alaska Airlines plane nosedived into the Pacific Ocean the coast north of Los Angeles.

"We have far exceeded our estimate of survivability," Collins told reporters. "We tried to err ... to give every chance of finding survivors. ... I think we must proceed to the next phase."

His announcement came after a small fleet of Navy, Coast Guard and commercial vessels spent more than 41 hours searching for survivors in a 1,000-square-mile-plus area of the Pacific.

Families to See Crash Site Thursday

About 80 family members had arrived at an assistance center in the Renaissance Hotel in Los Angeles by Tuesday night and another 50 were expected to show up Wednesday, said Chris Thomas, an American Red Cross volunteer.

"Last night during a briefing led by the NTSB, family members, I think, began to come to grips with the idea that family members had most likely perished in the crash," Thomas said.

Many of those who had arrived at the hotel remained in a state of shock, he said.

Alaska Airlines and Red Cross officials planned to take family members to the coast near the crash site Thursday.

NTSB to Investigate If Problem Was Known

The Seattle Times reported Wednesday the crashed plane had problems with the horizontal stabilizer on its way to Mexico, the leg just prior to the fatal flight.

A member of the NTSB confirmed the agency is looking into reports of prior problems, and that crew — different from the one killed in the crash — is being interviewed.

"We don't know if it's true, we are investigating that," John Hammerschmidt, a member of the NTSB, said of the report.

Similar Plane Has Similar Problem

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.

The plane turned around and landed safely at Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix. There were no injuries and the passengers boarded another plane to Dallas.

The American jet is part of the same series of McDonnell-Douglas planes as Flight 261.

That flight reportedly had problems with its horizontal stabilizer.

Tapes Provide Clues

Officials said a taped conversation between the pilots of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 and a ground maintenance crew in Seattle could be a major clue in finding what caused the crash.

NTSB Chairman Jim Hall told NBC's Today show there is a tape of the exchange between the plane's pilots and the crew in the minutes before the plane went down.

Hall said the tapes apparently capture how the pilots tried to troubleshoot a problem they were having with the plane's horizontal stabilizer. The device controls the pitch of the aircraft's nose.

"Obviously, these pilots were struggling to maintain control of this aircraft for a significant period of time. It's going to be very important to this investigation to understand why they were unsuccessful in this effort," Hall said, adding the tapes will be analyzed in Washington, D.C.

An ocean tug, the USNS Sioux should arrive Friday, providing investigators with towing options.

The mission might then be handed over to salvage experts as the plane is likely to be lying on the ocean bed 700 feet below the surface, far deeper than the 300-foot limit for safe operation by divers.

Searchers have found the bodies of a man, two women and an infant among the human remains, pieces of wreckage and personal items scattered across the fuel-soaked water.

Most of the bodies are believed pinned in the debris on the bottom of the ocean.

The MD-83 jetliner was headed from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and Seattle.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report