An empty seat, some clothes and a photo album were all that remained of Flight 592

'The River of Grass'
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"All I saw was an empty airplane seat floating in the muck, what looked like children's clothes and a photo album showing a mother with her children. There was no sign of bodies and only tiny pieces of debris."

Lt Chris Aguirre, a rescue worker with the so-called Haz Mat (hazardous materials) branch of the Miami fire department, was describing what he saw after arriving at the spot where an American passenger aircraft - on a flight from Miami to Atlanta - plummeted into the snake and alligator- infested Everglades swamp near Miami airport on Saturday with 109 people on board.

"All I could think of was whether that mother and children had been on board, what they had been doing seconds before it crashed. And I thought of my own family," he said.

Luis Fernandez, a fire department spokesman, shrugged off mosquitoes and dragonflies, and said: "We have not found any survivors, we have not found any victims, we have not found any body parts.

"The biggest piece of debris we found was no bigger than a baseball cap. We've found clothes that may have come out of luggage."

Reporters were kept several miles from the crash site, near Highway 41, known locally as the Tamiami Trail, which cuts through the swamp known as The River of Grass on the edge of the Miccosukee Indian reservation. But rescue workers described an eerie silence yesterday in the area where the aircraft went down "like a bullet, at a 75-degree angle", according to Dan Muelhaupt, a light aircraft pilot who saw the crash. "I thought at first it was a small plane doing some kind of aerial manoeuvres, then I realised it was a passenger jet out of control. When it hit the swamp, there was a fireball of dirt and debris, like a mushroom cloud."

Another pilot said the aircraft, white with a pale blue tailplane and yellow trim, "bored into the swamp like a power drill".

Mr Muelhaupt said the biggest piece of debris he saw as he overflew the site appeared to be a jet engine but by yesterday there was no sign of an engine or any sizeable debris, according to local television cameramen in the area in helicopters. "It's quicksand out there. It doesn't have a bottom," said Harold Johnson, a local fisherman. "It may have just swallowed that plane up."

Jim Ries, a Florida wildlife official, said the water in the area is about 3ft deep at present. In the rainy season, in the summer, it reaches 5ft or more. "But below that there's muck and mud and it can be very deep. The plane could be buried in there."

The DC-9 jet of the Atlanta-based cut-price ValuJet airline crashed about 20 miles north-west of the airport. It had been returning to the airport after the pilot reported smoke in the cockpit.

Rescue workers set up a command post on a levee - a man-made dirt causeway through the swamp - and searched the area by helicopter and local "airboats", flat-bottomed hydrofoils driven by huge fan-like propellers. The airboats, normally used to ferry tourists through the 2,000 square- mile Everglades to see alligators, snakes and rare birds, were the only way to reach the site. But by 11am yesterday, despite clear weather, rescue officials said they had called off the search for survivors.

"We have divers out there but the water is so murky they can't see more than an inch in front of their faces. They're literally feeling their way around, groping," said Mr Fernandez. "They're wearing protective clothing. We're concerned about a fuel explosion. There are usually poisonous snakes and alligators in that area but they probably got well out of there after the crash. Among the ideas under consideration is a grid system, with divers probing small areas one by one, or draining the entire area by building dams and dykes."

Miami police sealed off an area of three miles' radius around the crash site and warned airboat owners they would be arrested if they entered the zone. The security measures led to initial speculation that authorities feared the crash might have been the result of a terrorist attack - ValuJet is based in Atlanta, Georgia, site of this year's Olympic Games - but officials said the measures were because of fears that the jet's fuel could catch fire or explode.

Last night, the local Channel 7 television station quoted an unnamed passenger who had flown into Miami on the same aircraft earlier on Saturday as saying that it had had several problems before and during the flight. "They seemed to keep checking the engines before we took-off. Then the intercom went down during the flight and the stewardesses used megaphones to talk to us."

Among those believed to have died were Conway Hamilton, 85, and his wife Laura, 78, from Miami, who were flying to their granddaughter's college graduation, and American football star Rodney Culver of the San Diego Chargers.