Detroit air crash renews debate over US airline safety. Investigation seeks to sort out why plane crashed after takeoff

The crash of a Northwest Airlines jet in Detroit has brought into focus continuing doubts about the safety of the nation's airways. The cause of the Sunday evening accident, which claimed at least 154 lives, was still being investigated at press time. Nevertheless, airline passengers and safety experts are saying better safety measures are needed.

``It's time to do something,'' said a San Antonio composer, who was scheduled to fly out of Detroit two minutes after the Northwest flight. ``We've allowed the airlines to become deregulated. And everyone loves it because of the low airfares. [But] I'm ready to pay an extra $100 to see this not happen again.'' The composer ended up renting a car and driving to Chicago.

``Any major accident of this nature causes a reassessment'' of safety, adds C.O. Miller, a well-known air-safety consultant.

The Northwest jetliner, a McDonnell Douglas MD-80, had arrived from Saginaw, Mich., and had just taken off from Detroit Metropolitan airport en route to Phoenix and suburban Los Angeles, when it crashed. Eyewitnesses said the aircraft rocked to the left and then the right, striking an Avis car-rental agency, and then sliding under a railroad overpass and the overpass to Interstate 94, scattering debris. They said it appeared that the plane had caught fire before crashing.

The crash caused at least two fatalities on the ground and all 147 passengers and the six-member crew were apparently killed, authorities said. It was the second-worst aviation accident in the United States and the first major commercial plane crash in nearly a year. At press time, there were conflicting reports whether a four-year-old girl, who survived in the crash, had been on the airplane.

The cause of the crash is unknown, and an investigating team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived yesterday. The jet's ``black box,'' the flight data recorder, has been recovered, officials said. FBI agents were sent to the scene based on a report that there might have been an explosion before the crash, said John Anthony, an FBI spokesman in Detroit. The agents would check for any sign of a bomb, but there was ``no indication'' of a bomb on the plane, he said.

The Detroit airport was closed for 30 minutes after the crash. By Monday morning, the airport was reopened, but several Northwest flights had been canceled. In a statement, Northwest Airlines chairman and chief executive officer Steven G. Rothmeier said, ``With our condolences, we have extended to the families a commitment for every possible assistance.''

The crash comes at a time when many airline experts have voiced concern about the safety of flying. Recorded near-misses are running ahead of last year's total. And despite a very strong safety record, airline pilots and air controllers have talked about a shrinking margin of safety. This spring President Reagan appointed commissioners to a new aviation safety panel to look into such concerns. The panel held its first meeting last month.

In January, the FBI said it was investigating alleged tampering with Northwest planes at the Minneapolis airport. Last month, the Detroit Free Press said the airline had brought in security guards to combat minor acts of vandalism on ground equipment.

Bob Gibbons, a Northwest spokesman, said FBI investigation of a possible bomb is routine. He said there's no evidence of possible sabotage in the crash, and he would not comment on Northwest's recent union problems in Detroit. He added that it ``probably will be several months'' before the cause is determined.

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