No Safe Harbor

A plane crash off Canada rekindles several air-safety controversies

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Four months after the ValuJet plane went down, a Federal Express DC-10 was forced into an emergency landing at Newburgh, N.Y., because of fire in its cargo hold. The captain reported smoke at the same altitude as Swissair 111--33,000 ft.--and began to descend. Eighteen minutes later, the FedEx crew was sliding down ropes and chutes from the plane, which burned steadily for more than three hours after landing. The cause of the fire was never pinpointed, but investigators discovered such undeclared items as aerosol cans and plastic bottles containing acidic liquids, prompting the National Transportation Safety Board to warn that "the transportation of undeclared hazardous materials on airplanes remains a significant problem, and more aggressive measures are needed to address it." Lee Dickinson, an aviation engineer and a former NTSB member, cautions against premature comparisons. "We don't know yet whether or not the smoke cleared up in this case. We don't know how dense it was or where it came from." He adds, "Just because you see smoke doesn't necessarily mean there's fire." At week's end none of the 60 body parts recovered had burn marks.

There is luck and there is fate. Marc Rosset of Switzerland was eliminated from the U.S. Open tennis tournament in the first round. Ranked 47th in the world, Rosset, 27, decided to stay on in New York for practice with the best players in the world. He and his coach canceled their plan to fly to Geneva--on Swissair 111. That was luck.

Then there was Pierce Gerety, 56, a director of operations at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, who was in charge of such trouble spots as Rwanda and Burundi. He was used to danger, had dodged bullets, and once negotiated the release of his staff when they were kidnapped in Somalia. "He was always ambivalent about being in safe places," says his younger brother Tom. "But we were relieved when he was transferred to Geneva." Then came fate. On Wednesday, Gerety, late for one flight to Geneva, was transferred to another. Finally he was bumped to a third. It was Swissair 111.

--Reported by Leigh Anne Williams/Peggy's Cove, Harriet Barovick/New York City, Mark Thompson/Washington, Jerry Hannifin/Cape Canaveral, and Helena Bachmann/Geneva

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