Nathan Coats

Federal investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board started combing through debris on Sunday, looking for clues about the final seconds of Atlas Air flight 3591.

The Boeing 767-300 freighter crashed into Trinity Bay near the town of Anahuac, Texas on Saturday afternoon, about 40 miles from its destination, Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport. 

The freighter was on its approach to Houston when it suddenly made a sharp descent from an altitude of 5,800 feet and crashed into the marshy bay. According to video footage from about one-and-a-half miles away that captured five seconds of the descent, the aircraft was in a steep nosedive. 

There are no survivors. Atlas Air confirmed yesterday afternoon that all three people on the flight had been killed.

The company has not released the names of the pilots, while the third person on board was identified as Sean Archuleta, a pilot with Mesa Air, who was travelling in the jump seat. He leaves a six-month old son. 

There had been no indication of problems on board prior to the crash, but flight controllers in Houston suddenly lost radio and radar contact with the aircraft. They did not receive a distress call. 

According to flight tracking website FlightRadar24, the B767 dropped from 5,800 feet to about 1,300ft in nine seconds, so it was descending at 30,000ft per minute. 

In a news conference on Sunday afternoon, NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said a high priority for the investigators was to retrieve the aircraft’s black boxes. As the bay is shallow and swampy, they may be trapped in thick mud, which would muffle signals the boxes emit. It may be necessary to use divers or to dredge the area to find them. 

Flight 3591 was operated by Atlas Air for Amazon, flying from Miami to Houston. Atlas runs a fleet of 20 767 freighters for the e-commerce giant. 

Searchers at the at the crash site spotted items like bed sheets, women’s clothes and cardboard boxes. So far no manifest information has been released, but the fact that the freighter was carrying e-commerce is bound to feed speculation that undeclared and improperly packaged hazardous material, such as lithium batteries, may have been the cause of the tragedy. 

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