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Voices from Korean jetliner shed light on fatal flight

Nine years after they were killed by a Soviet warplane, the crew members of Korean Airlines Flight 007 can now be heard again, gripped by terror and bewilderment, as they plunge to their deaths in the frigid waters of the Sea of Japan.

"Get it up!" cries one voice in the cockpit, after two heat-seeking missiles slam into the Boeing 747 and it starts losing altitude.

"It's not working!" someone protests.

Anyone who has flown can visualize only too graphically the sheer panic of the 269 people aboard by extrapolating from the sounds and voices captured by the jet's cockpit voice recorder.

Suddenly, at 35,000 feet, there is smoke. A recorded message, in English, Japanese and Korean, kicks in: "Emergency descent. Fasten seat belts. Put on oxygen masks."

"I'm Korean Air 007. Don't break off contact, give instructions!" a voice calls from the plummeting jetliner, vainly seeking help by radio from flight controllers in faraway Tokyo.

The crew members apparently do not know their aircraft has been attacked after entering Soviet airspace over the island of Sakhalin early on Sept. 1, 1983.

In as few as 75 seconds, Flight 007 will be no more.

"We've got rapid (de)compression," continues the message for assistance. "I'm going down to 10,000."

Tokyo radios back: "Korean Air 007, don't understand, don't understand you."

It is already too late.

Five seconds later, the tape from the Boeing's cockpit voice recorder abruptly ends, according to a formerly top-secret Russian-language translation handed by President Boris Yeltsin to U.S. and South Korean officials and published Thursday by Izvestia.

The Moscow newspaper, whose investigation last year into the shootdown of KAL 007 blew away much of the official Kremlin propaganda, said the transcript and other released papers prove incontrovertibly that a passenger jet, and not a military spy plane, as some Soviets maintained, was destroyed.

But the documents released nine years after the tragedy leave many troubling questions unsolved _ including why the Boeing was 300 miles off its usual flight path and how its cockpit crew could not have realized that fact if its motives were totally innocent.

"One thing definitely beats me: how a crew of experienced pilots stayed quite a ways off course for about five hours and never even bothered to check," said Nikolai Burbyga, an Izvestia reporter who has specialized in the KAL tragedy. "Of course, under any circumstances, the Soviet side had no right by any standard, moral or military, to shoot down what was all too obviously a passenger plane."

According to the Soviet account, the South Korean crew members failed to use the sophisticated Inertial Navigation System (INS) that would have kept the plane on its designated flight course. Instead they flew the Boeing for more than five hours on autopilot with an incorrect navigational bearing that led them over the militarily sensitive Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin Island.

The Soviet military experts maintained that the deactivization of INS was a deliberate decision by the Korean pilot, who knowingly reported false positions to ground control in Anchorage and Tokyo. Western experts, however, are likely to argue that the failure to engage INS could have been an honest mistake. A single switch in the cockpit allows pilots to shift back and forth between three navigational systems.

A South Korean Foreign Ministry official, speaking in Seoul, complained that the files handed over by Yeltsin on Wednesday were incomplete.

Seoul officials said they want the recorder to help determine why the plane was destroyed. Itar-Tass news agency said the apparatus would be handed over to U.S. and South Korean representatives.

Among the other revelations in the formerly top-secret documents:

For years, the Soviets denied that they had found the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder. In reality, the "black boxes" were dredged up a month and half after the plane's destruction, in the 600-foot-deep waters of the Sea of Japan.

The Soviet fighter-interceptor did not attempt to make radio contact with KAL 007 before it opened fire, as Kremlin officials long claimed.

_ Information from the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post was used in this report.