Boston airliner accident leaves trail of unanswered questions

From a distance it looks almost comical.

The eye follows the two-mile-long gray runway from end to end, nothing interrupting its path. But just beyond one end a jet airliner lies immersed in mud, ice, and water like some child's toy gone awry.

This is what remains of the scene where a World Airways DC-10 failed to come to a stop at Logan Airport here on the icy night of Jan. 23 and skidded into Boston Harbor, the nose cone breaking off on impact.

Workmen struggled Jan. 26 to remove that nose cone from the muck for analysis by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The rest of the plane may take another 10 days to be brought out of the water, according to NTSB officials , now busily reconstructing the events and circumstances of the second major commercial aviation accident in the United States in less than two weeks. (A more serious accident occurred Jan. 13 in Washington, D.C., in which 78 people died.)

No lives were lost in the Boston mishap. But for some aboard the flight from Oakland, Calif., it was not so much the circumstances of the accident that are troubling but the way in which passengers were attended to afterward.

Controversy also mounted Jan. 26 over whether officials of the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), which operates the airfield, were trying to cover up their role in the accident by barring newsmen from the scene for more than four hours afterward.

Passengers and crew members had to wade through frigid water to get to shore, where they stood in rain for transportation back to the terminal area. For some, that transportation came in the back of an open truck after a wait of more than 30 minutes.

It was, said one passenger, as though ''there was nobody taking charge.''

''You hear on the news that we were trundled into warm buses,'' this passenger continues. ''There could have been buses out at the crash site, but I didn't see any.''

He and other passengers also complained about being made to wait in wet clothes for an hour in the airport fire station, whose doors were open, without word about where they would be taken next. Impersonal officials, they say, showed little sensitivity to their plight.

''I don't want to say that what they did was bad or wrong,'' said one passenger. ''But what would they do if it was a real disaster? If I could leave them with one thought, it would be: Get organized!''

Said a Massport spokeswoman in defending the performance of rescue workers: ''Our procedure is to take them to the fire station. There is a difference between getting all 200 people off the airplane and making sure they're all identified and accounted for. It's a longer process than the press seems to think it is.''

The World Airways flight was the last one scheduled to use the runway in question before it was to undergo further clearing and sanding. Just half an hour prior to the accident the pilot of another jetliner had radioed that braking conditions at Logan airport were ''poor to nil.'' Passengers on the World Airways plane, as well as operators of safety and rescue equipment sent to the scene, complained of difficulty in driving or walking on the icy surface.

But Massport officials say five other planes landed on the same runway between the ''poor to nil'' report and the accident and that ''records will show that all of those planes reported runway conditions within acceptable limits.'' ''Poor,'' said one spokesman, doesn't mean ''unsafe,'' just that caution must be used.

Some Boston newsmen have alleged that Massport deliberately kept reporters and cameramen from the scene immediately after the accident so that the runway could be made to look more ready to handle airplane traffic. A few newsmen sneaked onto the field, but only still photographs of the broken plane resulted from their efforts; no television pictures were taken until well afterward.

''I don't know that we're denying that specific allegation,'' the Massport spokeswoman said, adding, ''we are attempting to set up a meeting'' with those who have raised the question of a cover-up. Of the airport employees on duty at the time in question, ''everyone was involved in the rescue operation,'' she said.

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