Roots Of Tragedy -- Parents Seek Reasons For Death Of Son

Susan Campbell will never forget the vision that woke her before dawn on Feb. 25, 1989. Sitting up in bed, the Wellington, New Zealand, woman felt a strange sense of foreboding and beheld a ``clear, clear'' picture of her son, Lee, in front of her.

Sensing her anxiety, Kevin Campbell put an arm around his wife and kissed her lightly. Both went back to sleep.

The news came a few hours later. United Airlines Flight 811, en route from Honolulu to Auckland, New Zealand, had had an accident. Twenty minutes into the flight, at 23,000 feet, a cargo door had burst open, tearing a gaping hole in the fuselage of the Boeing 747. Lee Campbell was one of nine passengers blown out the hole to their deaths.

The Campbells were devastated. At 24, Lee was the oldest of their three children. A scholarship student, he had recently graduated from college and was engaged to be married. He had just landed a marketing job with an import company and was on his way home from a business trip to the U.S.

Racked by grief, the Campbells groped for a way of dealing with his death. What they decided to do was extraordinary. In the months after the tragedy, Kevin and Susan Campbell embarked on a mission to determine exactly what had gone wrong with Flight 811.

In an echoing airport hangar in Honolulu, they photographed the mangled jet's interior and scraped off bits of paint from the outside as a keepsake of their son. In Washington, D.C., they scrutinized metal pins and hooks recovered from the cargo-door frame at the National Transportation Safety Board. In their yearlong quest, the determined couple examined more than 2,000 pages of technical documents and, with the help of a New Zealand university, even devised a computer simulation of the incident.

They also spoke with 17 of the flight's survivors, including the captain and co-pilot, in an effort to reconstruct the events surrounding the incident. ``I have never known any family to get quite this involved,'' said Ronald Schleede, who heads the safety board's inquiry into Flight 811.

As a result of their investigation, the Campbells have devised a theory on the causes of the accident - one that the government investigators now are studying. If correct, the Campbells' theory could not only help determine who is liable for the accident, but also force The Boeing Co. to redesign the cargo doors on its 747s.

Researching the accident was emotionally wrenching for the Campbells. United, they discovered, had had ample warning of problems with that jet's forward cargo door. According to maintenance records, United ground personnel had trouble opening and closing the door 12 times in the 2 1/2 months before the accident. But the airline's mechanics never pinpointed the reason for the failures.

Moreover, United admitted in hearings on the incident that it didn't inspect its 747s' cargo doors as frequently as federal regulations require. In retyping a Federal Aviation Administration order for distribution to maintenance workers, a United employee inadvertently omitted a phrase calling for certain inspections.

Boeing and United, a unit of UAL Corp., declined repeated requests to discuss the accident. The safety board will know more in a few weeks, when the Navy is to try to retrieve the missing cargo door from the ocean floor.

Until the day of the accident, ``life was settling down quite nicely,'' for the Campbells, said their 18-year-old daughter, Fiona. Kevin Campbell, 46, had retired from his car dealership. He spent most of his time rebuilding vintage cars. Their children grown, Susan Campbell, 43, had returned to college to study sociology.

``The family was always everything to us,'' said Susan Campbell, a reserved, soft-spoken woman. Lee had become ``such a good friend,'' she recalled. Tall, dark-haired and athletic, he was his father's partner at weekly squash games, his mother's confidant on family matters.

But everything changed on Feb. 25, when the Campbells awoke to a radio report on the accident involving Flight 811. ``Susan looked at me with a look of sheer horror and said, `That's Lee's plane,' '' Kevin Campbell recalled. A few hours later, a United official called to say their son was missing and ``presumed dead.'' Lee Campbell's body was never recovered.

At the memorial service, Kevin Campbell wore one of the suits his son had taken on his trip; Lee's luggage had been returned shortly after the accident. The Campbells parked their son's green MG sports car outside the chapel. On the altar, they placed mementos of Lee, among them a favorite tie with a piano-keyboard design on it, a pair of his trademark red socks and a Father's Day card addressed ``To my Dad, who works so hard.''

Five days later, the Campbells flew to Honolulu at United's expense to get a close-up look at the disabled jet. The visit drove home the tragedy. The jagged hole was 10 feet by 20 feet - big enough to drive a car through.

Flight 811 had reached a speed of 460 miles per hour when the door burst open. Because of the explosive decompression, the jet's interior looked as if a tornado had struck. The floor had collapsed beneath 10 business-class seats. Wires and cables lay exposed. Serving trays and drinking glasses were lodged in overhead bins. Most horrifying of all was the sight of Lee's seat, 8H. All that remained were two broken seat legs.

As they were leaving the plane, Kevin Campbell pointed to some dents on the wings. Susan Campbell whispered to her husband that she hoped Lee had hit the wing and was knocked unconscious before enduring the four-minute fall to the ocean.

In April, the Campbells returned to the U.S., this time to attend a safety board hearing in Seattle. The critical issue: Why had the cargo door's locks failed?

Safety-board investigators focused on two possible causes. One was that a baggage handler had failed to close the door properly; United's ground crew disputed that theory. The other was that some mechanical or electrical problem had allowed the door to open accidentally in flight.

Boeing engineer James Fitzgerald explained how the doors normally work. Once the cargo is loaded, a baggage handler flips a switch, activating a mechanism that lowers the door into place. Two hooks in the door automatically grab the frame and pull the door flush with the outer skin of the fuselage. Eight latches then rotate around pins along the frame. Finally, the baggage handler twists a handle on the outside of the door, which causes eight locking arms to seal the latches in place.

Fitzgerald testified at the hearing that Boeing had known of problems with the doors since 1975. A number of airlines had complained that the electrical system occasionally malfunctioned and that the locks, which were made of lightweight aluminum, were bending when the door was closed manually. In response, Boeing issued a bulletin advising airlines to reinforce each of the locking arms with an additional aluminum plate. United says it didn't find any problems with the locks on its 747s, and chose not to make the repair.

On March 10, 1987, an incident occurred that presaged the tragedy of Flight 811. Shortly after a Pan Am 747 took off from London, the locking arms and the latches on its forward cargo door failed. All that kept the door from blowing off were the two pull-in hooks. The Pan Am crew managed to land the jet safely.

Subsequent inspection of the jet showed that most of the locking arms were bent and that one was broken. Robert Dann, a Pan Am engineer who testified at the hearing in Seattle, said a ground worker might not have closed the door properly.

But Dann also said Pan Am had had difficulty with the door's electrical system several times before the incident.

Kevin Campbell began to suspect an electrical malfunction was the problem.

The Pan Am incident prompted Boeing to issue a service ``alert'' in April 1987. It recommended that airlines reinforce the lock sectors with steel plates, which would be stronger than aluminum. In July 1988, the FAA made the repair mandatory, but it gave airlines two years to do it.

Seven months later, when the cargo door blew off Flight 811, United had fixed only six of its 31 747s. (By contrast, Pan Am had modified all 38 of its 747s and Trans World Airlines had repaired all of its 20.) Robert Doll, United's vice president of engineering, said at the hearing that United did not believe the locks were enough of a danger to justify the cost of repairing its entire fleet promptly. Each plane would have been out of service for 15 hours, according to an estimate by Boeing, though the actual repair would cost only $3,027 per 747.

``The day after the hearings ended was a very sad day. We realized how unnecessary this accident had been,'' Kevin Campbell said.

Although it was obvious that something was amiss with the door, the Campbells still felt an urgent need to pinpoint exactly what had gone wrong. At the hearing, they had amassed thousands of pages of documents on the accident - airline service bulletins, FAA orders, United maintenance records. For four months last summer, Kevin Campbell, who has a background in mechanical engineering, did little else than sit in his living room overlooking the rocky coastline of western New Zealand and sift through the evidence.

The Campbells also continued to track down surviving passengers and interview them about their recollections of the accident. Sometimes they lost heart. Once, after talking by telephone to a couple seated behind Lee, Susan Campbell broke into tears in her husband's arms. ``It's not going to make Lee any less dead,'' she said, sobbing.

Campbell found himself going back repeatedly to photos that investigators had taken of the switch that activates the electrical mechanism. The pictures showed loose wiring and tiny scorch marks in the switch. Campbell became convinced that the photos showed evidence that the switch had malfunctioned. In his view, the switch had arced - that is, an electrical charge had leapt from one wire to another - in midflight, starting up the motor that opens the door.

United's maintenance records, which detailed electrical problems with the door in the 10 weeks or so before the accident, bolstered his theory, in his view. A dozen times, when ground-crew members tried to open or close the door electrically, it didn't work. ``Things began adding up to an electrical failure,'' Campbell said.

He found what he believes is another clue in the transcript of the cockpit voice recording. At 2:09 a.m. Capt. David Cronin heard a thump and asked ``What the hell was that?'' Then, 1.8 seconds later, the crew heard what they thought was a bomb exploding. It was the door bursting open. Campbell speculates that the initial thump was the sound of the door's locks and latches giving way.

In September, Campbell submitted his analysis to the safety board in Washington. Once there, he discovered in the board's files a statement from passenger Roland Wilhelmy. About two seconds before the door blew off, Wilhelmy said he heard something buzzing. Campbell believes the noise was the electrical motor that opens the door.

Safety-board investigators say they aren't yet convinced. They also noticed the scorch marks, but they don't think an arc could have triggered the door's opening. The door is designed, they say, so that power to its electrical system is cut off before the aircraft leaves the ground. Based on what Boeing has told them, investigators say four independent systems would have had to have failed for the door to open in flight.

The safety board believes a more likely scenario is that the door simply wasn't closed properly on the ground, or that the locks had been damaged previously. At 23,000 feet, the pressure differential was so great that the locks gave way. But there are problems with this theory as well. An improperly secured door should activate a warning light in the cockpit when the crew readies the jet for take-off.

If the safety board's leading theory is proven correct, the United disaster will probably be attributed to human error. But Schleede, the investigator, says he has not ruled out the Campbells theory yet. ``This guy has done his homework,'' he said. If Kevin Campbell is right, Boeing may have to redesign its 747 cargo doors. He says the electrical mechanisms that operate the doors should not be built into the 747; he suggests instead that the airlines keep such equipment for use on the ground.

All the research has taken a toll on the Campbells. In November, Kevin Campbell was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer. Fiona Campbell says her parents look ``sadder, more tired'' each time they return from the U.S. They are beginning to put the tragedy behind them, though. This month the Campbells accepted a settlement from Boeing and United that a family friend estimated at $600,000. The companies also agreed to contribute $25,000 each to a scholarship fund in Lee's name. The Campbells decline to discuss the settlement.

In reflective moments, the Campbells say they think their son had a strange foreshadowing of the bizarre fate that would befall him. After his death they found a poem he had written:

Waves hypnotizing me with green, beckoning fingers

A dream of space flight weightlessness

Air rushes past to fill a vacuum,

Progressive holes which must be filled

Lee had titled the poem ``Was That Me?''

-- Reprinted with permission of the Wall Street Journal. Copyright 1990, Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.