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NTSB: Plane spun into ocean

Witnesses tell federal investigators of the Alaska Airlines plane's final moments, and searchers recover one of its "black box" recorders.

Moments before it crashed, Alaska Airlines Flight 261 started "tumbling, spinning, nose-down" as it hurtled toward the Pacific Ocean, a federal investigator said Wednesday.

The MD-83 jetliner was in one piece and there were no signs of fire or smoke when it hit the water, killing all 88 people aboard, witnesses told investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board.

As it passed over Anacapa Island, just off the Southern California coast, a witness heard several popping sounds, watched the plane turn, then plunge into the Santa Barbara Channel, NTSB member John Hammerschmidt said.

"The aircraft was twisting, flying erratically, nose rocking," the witness told investigators, Hammerschmidt said. Pilots in the vicinity described the plane as "tumbling, spinning, nose-down, continuous roll, corkscrewing and inverted," he said.

Earlier Wednesday, searchers recovered one of the "black box" recorders that could help explain the crash.

"As luck would have it, almost literally true, as soon as they got down to the bottom they found the first box," said Navy Capt. Terry Labrecque.

The remote-controlled underwater robot Scorpio broke the surface of the Santa Barbara Channel shortly before sundown, clutching the cockpit voice recorder.

The device would have recorded conversations and any other sounds in the cockpit during the flight.

The search continued in about 700 feet of water for the flight data recorder, a companion box that would reveal details of the plane's mechanical operation.

Investigators hope the recorders will help find what happened in the terrifying few minutes between the pilots' first report of mechanical problems on Alaska Flight 261 and plane's nose-dive into the Pacific.

Five crew members and 83 passengers were on the flight Monday from Puerto Vallarta, a Mexican vacation spot, to San Francisco and Seattle.

On Wednesday, there was a new report the plane had mechanical problems on its flight to Puerto Vallarta.

The Seattle Times reported there were problems with a part of the tail called the horizontal stabilizer on the flight to Mexico. The stabilizer keeps the plane flying level.

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

Hammerschmidt said the board was looking into the earlier flight and would interview the pilots on Thursday.

Just before Flight 261 crashed, the pilots reported struggling with a jammed stabilizer. The pilots also radioed a Seattle maintenance crew about the problem, and the NTSB on Wednesday began analyzing recordings of that call.

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

Meanwhile, a jammed horizontal stabilizer forced an American Airlines MD-80 to return to Phoenix 20 minutes after it took off for Dallas on Wednesday. The plane 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, said Phil Frame, a spokesman for the NTSB in Washington. Frame knew of no link between the American Airlines incident and the Alaska Airlines investigation, but "it may have piqued their interest."

Earlier Wednesday, the search for survivors was called off over the protest of some family members who held out hope that someone 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.

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.

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

Many of the relatives were staying at a Los Angeles hotel, where they met with Red Cross counselors and were briefed on the search by the Coast Guard.

"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.

Around noon Wednesday, a 50-foot fishing boat carrying 18 people, including relatives of three victims of the crash, cut a solitary course from Port Hueneme to the crash site. Mourners leaned over the bow, or stood close together and squinted into the reflective glare.

A Coast Guard escort followed several hundred yards behind, and admonished the news media over the radio to stay far away.

Less than 3 miles north of Anacapa Island, as the wind died and a swell mounted, the boat stopped, and family members moved to the stern for a memorial service. Within a half hour they were headed back to port.

"This is one of the toughest things I've ever had to do," said boat captain Fred Mathis, a 52-year-old Ventura resident. "These people may never have closure. They don't have bodies to bury, they don't have anything to hang on to."

As the operation entered a third day, the Navy took over control from the Coast Guard.

Two other remote-control submersibles like Scorpio were either on scene or en route, as well as ships with side-scan sonar equipment that can make detailed maps of debris on the bottom.

The wreckage is about 700 feet down _ well below the 300-foot limit for safe operation by divers.

In one of the eeriest twists to the investigation, the NTSB reported that a civilian on the beach in Ventura took a photograph that, apparently by sheer coincidence, appears to include the Alaska Airlines plane in the seconds before it crashed.

"We do have a print," said Ted Lopatkiewicz, an NTSB spokesman. "There is something in the far distance. We'll blow it up and take a look at it. But I should stress, it's a very faint image at a long distance. If you look at it with the naked eye, you can't tell what it is."

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

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