URGENT Medical Examiners Office Says It Will Be Present for Examination of RemainsHOWARD BENEDICT , Associated Press
Mar. 12, 1986 1:10 PM ET
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ NASA and the Air Force will permit representatives of the county medical examiner's office to be present when remains of Challenger's astronauts are examined, the office said today.
The agreement came as searchers located a piece of solid rocket booster that a Navy spokeswoman said could be from the segment of the right booster believed responsible for the shuttle explosion.
The 4-foot-by-5-foot piece of debris from the rear part of a solid rocket booster, weighing about 500 pounds, is believed to contain propellant and part of the external tank attachment ring, said Lt. Cmdr. Deborah Burnette.
The wreckage, found 32 miles offshore in 600 feet of water by the manned submersible Sealink 2, ''could well be from the right SRB,'' she said.
The compromise between the medical examiner's office and the Air Force and National Aeronautics and Space Administration settles a controversy over who should have jurisdiction over astronauts' bodies. Sources had said the medical examiner's office might seek a court order unless NASA and the Air Force turned over the remains in accordance with state law.
Remains of the seven astronauts killed when Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch Jan. 28 were brought ashore secretly Saturday night by a salvage ship that came in without running lights, sources said.
State law requires the local medical examiner to conduct an autopsy on any person who is slain or dies by accident. The statutes apply even if death occurs on federal property.
Dr. Laudie McHenry, chief medical examiner for Brevard County, said today: ''Since the discovery of the Challenger capsule with its human remains, there has been essentially a blackout of communications between NASA, the Air Force and this office. Two days ago, a conference between representatives of Patrick Air Force Base Hospital, the Amred Forces Institute of Pathology and the Brevard County medical examiner gave lip service to a coordinated, multiagency investigation, with favorable comments by all present.
''As of 10 a.m. today, March 12, telephone communication from NASA indicates that representatives of the Brevard County medical examiner may be present at the investigations to be performed.''
The statement added, ''There are no planned lawsuits or court hearings concerning this investigation.''
Sources have reported that forensic experts have been examining the astronaut body parts in a hospital at nearby Patrick Air Force Base. All the sources spoke on condition of anonymity.
News organizations have had to use unidentified sources because NASA, citing consideration for the astronauts' families, has blacked out information on the recovery operation since announcing the discovery Sunday of the remains.
The space agency also has not acknowledged that human remains have been recovered.
Meanwhile, the Navy salvage ship USS Preserver was in the area 18 miles offshore where NASA reported astronaut remains were located in the debris of Challenger's cabin in 100 feet of water.
The 213-foot Navy ship has a crew of 10 officers and 104 enlisted men and has about 20 deep-sea divers aboard. It has two booms capable of lifting debris weighing eight and 10 tons.
Searchers hope the crew compartment will yield valuable magnetic tape and computer data that could reveal more about Challenger's last seconds before the explosion that killed its crew of five men and two women.
If the tapes are damaged, there is technology available to enhance them, depending on their condition, officials said.
The cost of the recovery effort had reached $5 million and now involves 11 surface ships, two small manned submarines and three robot submarines, NASA and the Navy reported Tuesday.
The Preserver is concentrating on the crew cabin, while the other vessels try to retrieve parts of the left and right booster rockets and other debris or search by sonar for wreckage not yet located.
The search area is 350 square miles and extends roughly from 15 to 40 miles northeast of the launch pad.