NEW YORK -- Investigators focused Wednesday on how the tail fin of American Airlines Flight 587 snapped off the fuselage as the jetliner broke apart and crashed, killing 265 people.
Determining how the 25-foot-high tail separated from the plane -- a breakup experts consider unprecedented -- was hampered Wednesday with word that the flight data recorder was damaged, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
"We're confident that there's data on it, so we're optimistic about getting that data," the NTSB's George Black Jr. said Wednesday on CBS' "The Early Show."
On Tuesday night, Black said investigators did not yet know what caused the "airframe rattling noise," but witnesses describe a remarkably similar story.
"They saw the aircraft wobble ... and saw pieces come from it and then it went into a steep spiral and dived into the ground," Black said.
On Wednesday, investigators were trying to determine exactly where the tail fin separated from the fuselage.
"I don't know that we've had a failure in modern times of a tail on a commercial airplane, so I don't know there's any precedent and we'll be looking very carefully at how the tail failed," Black told CNN.
All 260 people aboard were killed when Flight 587 broke apart and plunged into the Rockaway Beach section of Queens, a neighborhood still grieving for the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said 262 bodies had been recovered from the crash, and five more people were missing and feared dead on the ground.
Investigators found the flight data recorder Tuesday, a discovery hailed as a major breakthrough. The device tracks nearly 200 functions, including instruments and engine performance.
The plane's cockpit voice recorder indicates the pilots struggled for control during the first moments after takeoff and encountered wake turbulence, which is believed to have contributed to other deadly airline crashes.
So far, investigators said all signs point to a catastrophic mechanical problem and away from a bomb or sabotage.
"We're not ruling anything out until we have got our information more fully developed than we do. But everything says so far we're looking at an accident site," NTSB chairwoman Marion C. Blakey said Tuesday night.
The Airbus A300 crashed into the Belle Harbor neighborhood near Kennedy International, another jolt of terror for a community that lost scores of residents in the Sept. 11 trade center attack. A number of homes were destroyed.
The tail fin, or vertical stabilizer, was fished out of Jamaica Bay on Monday near Rockaway Beach; the rudder was found nearby Tuesday. The rudder, which is supported by the tail fin, controls the plane's turns from side to side.
A former NTSB lead investigator, Greg Feith, noted that the tail was found some distance from the rest of the wreckage and that it was in remarkably good condition, with no burn marks or obvious signs of damage from metal fragments.
Feith said those were all signs that a failure originally in the tail may have led to the disaster. "If the vertical stabilizer is off the airplane, you've lost total control," he said.
The NTSB also was looking at whether the plane's two engines might have failed after sucking birds inside, a phenomenon that has caused severe damage to airliners in the past. But the NTSB said an initial inspection of the engines found no evidence of such a collision and the engines appeared to be largely intact.
Black detailed the number of hours the pilots had flown -- one was hired in 1985, the other in 1991 -- and said investigators are still searching for witnesses who might have seen the crash or videotaped it.
One amateur videotape the NTSB has obtained shows what Black described as a "normal" takeoff. The gears are retracted and the pilot begins to turn before the person videotaping points the camera elsewhere, Black said.
The NTSB said that cockpit recordings showed unusual "rattling" noises one minute, 47 seconds after takeoff. Seven seconds later, the pilot remarked to the co-pilot about encountering the wake of another plane.
The NTSB believes that plane was a Japan Airlines jetliner that took off two minutes and 20 seconds before Flight 587 -- a full 20 seconds longer than the normal separation time between takeoffs.
Two minutes into Flight 587, more rattling can be heard. Then the co-pilot, who was flying the plane, called for maximum power and the pilots discussed losing control of the jetliner. The recording ends 17 seconds later.
The General Electric engines on the Airbus A300 model have drawn close scrutiny since the spring of 2000, when planes reported engine failures that sent metal fragments flying. FAA records show the A300 that crashed Monday was repaired dozens of times over more than a decade for corrosion problems.
In Manhattan, in an all-too-familiar ritual of grief since the trade center attack, dozens of family members gathered at a family-assistance center in hopes of giving their loved ones a proper burial.
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