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Cockpit voice recorder found

Investigators also are looking into a report that the plane had problems with the horizontal stabilizer on an earlier flight to Mexico.

An unmanned vehicle recovered one of the "black box" recorders Wednesday that could hold the answer to the cause of the Alaska Airlines crash.

The remote controlled vehicle, operating in up to 700 feet of water, brought up the cockpit voice recorder, said Terry Williams, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.

A similar device that records flight data was not immediately recovered, he said, but searchers had a fix on it using pinging signals emitted by its locator beacon.

The recorder _ actually painted bright orange despite its popular name _ was brought to the surface clutched in the mechanical claw of the boxy yellow submersible.

Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plunged into the Pacific off Southern California on Monday as the pilots struggled with mechanical problems. Killed were 88 crew and passengers returning home to San Francisco and Seattle from vacations in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Investigators said Wednesday they were looking into a report that the plane had problems with a part of the tail called the horizontal stabilizer on the flight to Mexico.

Records of radio conversations between the pilots and air traffic controllers showed the crew was struggling with stabilizer problems before the plane crashed.

Authorities also began analyzing recordings of the pilots' conversations with a Seattle maintenance crew, which were made while the pilots tried to control the plane in the terrifying moments before it nose dived into the sea.

Earlier, dozens of ships were ordered to abandon the search for survivors and shift their focus to recovering flight recorders and wreckage.

The search for survivors was called off over the protest of some family members who held out hope that some of the plane's passengers and crew might still be alive in the chilly waters of the Santa Barbara Channel.

"We have far exceeded our estimate of survivability," Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thomas Collins said.

On shore, investigators interviewed airline employees about the report that a different crew of pilots complained of problems with the aircraft's horizontal stabilizer as they headed toward Puerto Vallarta on Monday.

The stabilizer keeps the plane flying level.

Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Evans in Seattle denied the Seattle Times report: "We stand by what we said earlier this week, which is that we're not aware of any maintenance anomalies with this aircraft."

NTSB member John Hammerschmidt confirmed that the agency was looking into the newspaper report. Pilots from the earlier flight were to be interviewed, he said.

Meanwhile a jammed horizontal stabilizer forced an American Airlines MD-80 to land in Phoenix 20 minutes after takeoff Wednesday, said Phil Frame, a spokesman for the NTSB in Washington. The plane, which had been headed toward Dallas, is part of the same series of aircraft as the Alaska MD-83 that crashed.

Federal investigators were having the flight data recorder from the American Airlines plane sent to them.

Frame knew of no link between the American Airlines incident and the crash investigation, but "it may have piqued their interest."

Investigators interviewed pilots who were flying in the area of the crash and may have seen Flight 261 go down.

The audio tapes of the pilots and the Seattle maintenance crew apparently capture an exchange that took place as the pilots tried to troubleshoot what was going wrong, Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said on morning talk shows.

"Obviously these pilots were struggling to maintain control of this aircraft for a significant period of time. It's going to be very important to this investigation," Hall said.

The tape was handed over Tuesday to federal investigators by Alaska Airlines in Washington, D.C., Hall said.

The search for survivors had gone on for 41 hours and included dozens of Coast Guard, Navy and civilian ships, boats and aircraft that combed a 1,100-square-mile area.

About 80 family members had arrived at an assistance center in the Renaissance Hotel in Los Angeles by Tuesday night and another 50 were expected to show up Wednesday, said Chris Thomas, an American Red Cross volunteer.

Many of those who had arrived at the hotel remained in a state of shock, he said.

"I just want to know that our family members didn't suffer and that it was just fast," said Janis Ost Ford, whose brother Bob Ost was on board the plane.

Alaska Airlines and Red Cross officials planned to take family members to the coast near the crash site today.

"They will be able to deal with the emotional responses; they'll be able to see the search-and-rescue recovery process," Thomas said.

As the operation entered a third day, several ships used for salvage arrived at Port Hueneme, including Navy vessels equipped with advanced side-scan sonar that can be used to map debris on the bottom.

The wreckage is about 700 feet down. Divers cannot operate below about 300 feet, so the search is being carried out by three unmanned vehicles.

If one of the plane's two recorders _ the flight data recorder _ was programmed to monitor the stabilizer, it might reveal the condition of the stabilizer when the jet went down. If not, officials would have to deduce what happened by studying how other systems performed before the crash.