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Investigators search for missing engines in bone-chilling Hudson

THICK mud, menacing currents and bone-chilling temperatures stymied investigators yesterday as they scoured the Hudson River for the two missing engines from a US Airways jetliner that crash-landed in the water after colliding with birds.

The investigation ran into a series of obstacles one day after the pilot ditched the plane carrying 155 people. The collision apparently caused both of the engines to fail, forcing the aircraft to go down just a few hundred meters from the Manhattan skyline. All on board survived.

The engines broke off the plane sometime after the crash and sank to the bottom, forcing investigators to use sonar to search for them.

Experts said the wreckage could be nearly impossible to find because it is probably 9 meters to 15 meters down, stuck in mud and obscured by thick sediment. Conditions are so murky that police and fire department divers will have to feel about by hand.

"There is hardly anything to see because of the sediment," said Thomas M. Creamer, chief of the operations division of the New York District of the US Army Corps of Engineers, one of the groups brought in to help with the search.

The current was especially swift yesterday, making it impossible for crews to hoist the aircraft out of the water and remove its flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.

Investigators also had yet to interview the pilot, Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger.

The pilot's status as a national hero rose by the hour as he took a congratulatory call from the president, earned effusive praise from passengers on the plane and become the subject of a growing global fan club. The pilot was in good spirits and showing no outward signs of stress from the ordeal, a pilots union official said.

The 58-year-old pilot yesterday fielded congratulatory calls from President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama.

Crews planned to pull the plane from the water today before putting it on a barge.

Investigators want to closely inspect the engines to figure out how exactly the birds caused the plane to fail so badly and so fast. They may also examine any feathers remaining in the engine to determine the type of bird species, helping prevent future mishaps.

The type of engine on the Airbus 320 is designed to withstand a 1.8-kilogram bird strike, said Jamie Jewell, a spokeswoman for CFM International of Cincinnati, which manufactures the engines. That's fairly typical for commercial airliners and their engines, although larger Canada geese -- a possible culprit in the crash -- can exceed 5.4 kilograms.

Kitty Higgins, a spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board, also suggested that part of the investigation will be to "celebrate what worked here," something of a rarity for an agency that focuses on figuring out what went wrong in a disaster.

"A lot of things went right yesterday (Thursday), including the way that not only the crew functioned, but the way the plane functioned."

The investigation began as new details emerged about why the pilot chose to land the plane in the river -- and not at two nearby airports. The pilot twice told air controllers that he was unable to make the proper turn after reporting a "double bird strike."

The tower believed Sullenberger meant that both his jet engines had been damaged by bird impacts.

The accident also raised questions about whether airports around the country are doing enough to deal with bird flocks.

The agency that operates New York City's major airports said it has a multimillion-dollar program to chase birds off its property, but can only do so much to protect planes once they are in the air.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said it kills thousands of birds every year in the marshy waterways and tidal flats that surround its two major airports in Queens, and uses guns, pyrotechnics and hawks to drive away birds.

Among the other tactics: Bird eggs are coated in oil to prevent them from hatching. Nests are removed. The agency also plays recordings of bird distress calls, and landscapers remove any shrubs and trees that might be attractive to certain species.

The Air Transport Association, an airline association, has had a "bird strike" task force for years examining things that can be done to reduce the danger of a hit.

Among other things, the task force has arranged for any feathers collected from damaged aircraft to be sent to a lab at the Smithsonian where they can be analyzed to determine the species involved. Knowing the type of bird can help authorities decide how to control flocks in busy airspace.

Passengers heaped more praise on Sullenberger, co-pilot Jeff Skiles and their crew for how they handled the landing and evacuation.

Mark P. Hood, of Charlotte, North Carolina, said he felt a jolt ripple through the jet as though a baseball bat hit the engine close to the George Washington Bridge.

"I think everyone was holding their breath, making their peace, saying their prayers," Hood said.

At a City Hall ceremony yesterday to honor those who came to the aid of the stranded passengers, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Sullenberger's actions "inspired people around the city, and millions more around the world."

Police and emergency crews on yesterday pulled about 15 pieces of carry-on luggage, the door of the plane, sheared pieces of metal and flotation devices from the water.

The plane, bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, was forced to land shortly after taking off from LaGuardia Airport on Thursday.

Besides one victim with two broken legs, there were no other reports of serious injuries.


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