The cockpit crew told investigators yesterday that they had received no indication from their cockpit lights that the cargo door had been improperly secured before they "heard a tremendous explosion," NTSB member Lemoine V. Dickinson Jr. said.
The investigators interviewed crew members and probed the hole in the side of the jet, trying to determine why the front-right cargo door apparently blew open and peeled away a section of the business-class passenger cabin.
Nine passengers seated in rows 9 through 12, above the cargo hold, were sucked out of the plane at 22,000 feet about 100 miles south of Honolulu. None of the bodies had been recovered by last night, although body fragments were found in the right inboard engine by the Honolulu deputy medical examiner.
The Coast Guard yesterday continued searching a 3,000-square-mile area of the Pacific for the missing passengers. They were identified as Susan Craig and Harry Craig of Morristown, N.J.; Rose Harley of Hackensack, N.J.; Anthony Fallon and Barbara Fallon of Long Beach, Calif.; Mary T. Handley of Bay City, Mich.; Lee Campbell of Wellington, New Zealand; and Dr. John Michael Crawford and John Swann, both of Sydney, Australia.
The search effort 100 miles south of Oahu - which turned up two airplane seats, a shoe, a 4-by-6-foot piece of metal and several emergency escape pamphlets usually found tucked into the back of seats - involved three Coast Guard cutters, the Navy vessel USS Coronado, three helicopters and a cargo plane, said Coast Guard Chief Lowry Wilson.
FBI and Federal Aviation Administration inspectors searched the cargo hold for evidence of a bomb, but found none, Dickinson said.
In Honolulu, six investigative teams formed by the NTSB and other agencies examined the maintenance records, structural components and engines of the plane and interviewed United employees and air traffic controllers.
The two "black boxes" from Flight 811 - the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder - were recovered from the plane and will be taken to Washington for analysis, Dickinson said.
Dickinson said the cargo door was closed electronically before Flight 811 took off Friday morning for Auckland, New Zealand.
Many of the passengers who survived Flight 811 boarded another United 747 Friday night to continue their journeys to Auckland and Sydney. Six others boarded yesterday's Flight 811, which left Honolulu uneventfully at 1:30 a.m. with 274 passengers aboard.
"What are the odds of that happening again?" said Jack Kennedy, a Melbourne, Australia, surgeon waiting to board a United flight home with his two sons. "The chances of it happening again are almost nil. But I'm not saying we're not nervous. We thought we were going in the drink yesterday."
Passenger Angela Anderson of Fresno, Calif., said she was continuing her vacation to Australia despite having watched a woman be sucked from the plane on Friday morning.
"I saw one lady go up in the air. . . . I saw this body go up and I didn't see it come back down," said Anderson, who was sitting about 20 rows behind the section that ruptured. "But I just figured it wasn't my time."
The damaged 747, the oldest plane of its type purchased directly by United
from Boeing, sat at the edge of Hickam Air Force Base, adjacent to Honolulu International Airport. The gaping hole in the starboard side of the fuselage was covered with a blue plastic sheet, but the plane was clearly visible to passengers arriving at Honolulu International.
Five people, including three flight attendants, remained hospitalized yesterday. One flight attendant still in the hospital was Philadelphia-area resident Paige Casper, 25, of West Chester. Hospital officials said she was in good condition, recovering from a scalp wound.
The most seriously injured passengers - a 48-year-old woman with neck and abdominal injuries and a 73-year-old man with chest pains - were reported in fair condition.
United officials said the jetliner had been flown 58,815 hours on 15,021 flights - figures that a Boeing spokesman said were average for a plane its age. The jet went into service Nov. 3, 1970.
The plane's age was one factor being studied. Older 747s were the subject of a bulletin from Boeing in 1986, when the manufacturer notified air carriers of possible cracks in the nose area of the aircraft. The FAA later required that the nose section be inspected on any 747 that had flown more than 8,000 flights.
United senior vice president William Speicher said the damaged plane was inspected after the FAA order and had last undergone routine inspection Feb. 15.
The aircraft had "no history of trouble," he said.
Bobbie Nardis, a spokeswoman for the FAA in Oklahoma City, where safety records are kept, said cracks once were found in the New Zealand-bound United plane near the structure that holds the engine to the wing. She said the plane also once had had an engine fire.
But Nardis said "people who work with these reports all the time" said the plane had nothing on its record that particularly distinguished it from other jumbo jets.
After an incident involving a cargo door on a Pan American 747 in April, the FAA ordered all 747 cargo doors to be reinforced with aluminum plates, and, by Dec. 31 of this year, with steel plates.
The cargo door on the damaged United plane had been reinforced with aluminum plates, but the steel plates had not yet been installed, United officials said.
In the Pan Am incident, the cargo door in the same location as the one involved in Friday's accident opened three inches in flight and resulted in decompression of the cargo hold. No accident occurred and no one was injured, but the incident prompted the FAA directive to all air carriers.
On 747s, after the cargo doors are closed electronically they are manually latched, and a light in the cockpit shows whether they have been properly secured.