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As night fell, a large crane lifted pieces of wreckage in the search for bodies. Four were found under the landing gear. Floodlights illuminated the scene, which included the grotesque sight of corpses being loaded into refrigerator trucks labeled LIVE MAINE LOBSTERS. All three members of the cockpit crew were killed. The pilot, Captain Ted Connors, 57, had flown for Delta for 31 years. One passenger survived because she made a lucky decision. Assigned a front seat before takeoff from Fort Lauderdale, Annie Edwards, of Pompano Beach, Fla., shifted to a rear seat beside a friend, Juanita Williams. Both survived. They were among a group of women going to Dallas to attend a convention of Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority. Other passengers were heading for Los Angeles, the flight's last stop. Friends checking the arrivals list there found a curt message: "Flight 191. See agent."
Overall, the L-1011's safety record has been good, although there have been two previous serious accidents. A fire spread disastrously after a Saudi Arabian L-1011 made an emergency landing at Riyadh in 1980, and 301 people died. In 1972, one of the planes operated by Eastern Airlines crashed into the Florida Everglades while approaching Miami; 98 people were killed.
The weather is expected to be the main focus of National Transportation Safety Board investigators, who rushed to Dallas to seek the cause of the accident. While some witnesses reported that lightning had struck Flight 191, a board spokesman doubted that this would have caused the crash. "Lightning doesn't normally take an airplane down," he said. "It hasn't happened in many, many years."
The more likely suspect is wind shear, a collision or crossing of high-velocity winds, often during thunderstorms. Since the winds can shift from head to tail almost instantaneously, the condition is nearly impossible for a pilot to handle at relatively slow takeoff and landing speeds. Recent studies have cited wind shear as a factor in at least 27 commercial aircraft accidents since 1964. The most notable: an Eastern Airlines 727 crash on landing at New York's JFK Airport in 1975 that killed 113, and a Pan American 727 accident after takeoff from New Orleans in 1982 that left 153 dead. President Reagan was in Air Force One in August 1983 when it landed at Maryland's Andrews Air Force Base moments before wind shear flattened trees at the airfield.
Dallas/Fort Worth is one of about 100 U.S. airports with a special array of anemometers to detect dangerous swirling winds near ground level. Investigators will be trying to determine what the sensors recorded just before Flight 191 made its approach, and if the readings were ominous, why the pilot was not warned. --By Ed Magnuson. Reported by Jerome Chandler and David S. Jackson/Dallas