The pilot of a fuel-starved Colombian jetliner radioed air traffic controllers that the plane needed a ``priority' landing, but that urgent plea was never relayed to the radar facility responsible for guiding the aircraft to John F. Kennedy International Airport, investigators said Sunday.
Just as the plane was completing its last holding pattern south of New York City, the pilots notified controllers in the New York Center that it was low on fuel and needed to land quickly. But officials said the radio message went no further.``If there was information at New York Center, it should have been passed on to New York TRACON,' Lee Dickinson, a National Transportation Safety Board member said after a day of examining possible causes of the crash that killed 73 people, including the cockpit crew. TRACON is the Terminal Radar Approach Control, a facility in Garden City, N.Y.
Dickinson said traffic controllers told investigators that there was a critical controller shortage Thursday night when the plane smashed into a hillside in this suburban community.
Dickinson said that the last plane before the Avianca flight approaching Kennedy was an American Airlines jet, whose pilot radioed that he only had 14 minutes of fuel and ``had to declare an emergency.'
Dickinson said one controller told investigators: ``It was an intense evening. The weather was bad. They had a shortage of controllers, and there were exceptional winds' of 60 to 70 mph.
Safety board members said they discovered the critical lapse in communications after interviewing air traffic controllers and studying transcripts of recorded conversations between the Avianca Boeing 707 jet and ground personnel.
Of the 86 survivors, 20 remained in critical condition Sunday.
After radioing that it needed a priority landing, the Avianca jet was forced to abort its first landing attempt after instruments warned that it was approaching the runway too steeply. Later, it radioed twice more that it was low on fuel. In the second message, the pilot said two engines had failed.
Federal investigators said the plane's initial flight plan called for 74,000 pounds of jet fuel - enough to provide an extra 90 minutes of flying time on the normally 4 hour and 40 minute journey from Colombia.
The plane was delayed for 89 minutes by weather-related congestion en route - for 16 minutes over Norfolk, Va., for 27 minutes between Norfolk and New York, and for 46 minutes about 40 miles south of JFK.
The dead, the living and their rescuers were remembered Sunday at church services on Long Island.
At St. Dominic's Church in Oyster Bay, the Rev. William Donovan told parishioners, including many firemen, policemen, doctors and nurses who worked at the crash scene Thursday night, that the hand of God had helped them perform their harrowing duties.
``I had to make some decisions that I never want to make again,' said Oyster Bay Fire Chief Tom Reardon, who was one of the first to arrive at the wooded hillside and directed setting up the triage area. ``I had to tell people that - crass as it may sound - that we have to move the dead people out of the way to get to live people.'