The search for answers begins Clinton urges nation not to assume crash was work of terrorists

Speculation includes missile

State Department doubts link to threat sent to London paper

Tragedy Of Flight 800

July 19, 1996|By Michael James and Sandy Banisky | Michael James and Sandy Banisky,SUN STAFF

EAST MORICHES, N.Y. THE NEW YORK TIMES, ASSOCIATED PRESS AND REUTERS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — EAST MORICHES, N.Y. -- A recovery effort including 500 workers and a flotilla of 30 vessels pulled victims from the cold waters off Long Island yesterday as investigators began their search into why Paris-bound TWA Flight 800 exploded spectacularly minutes after takeoff Wednesday night, killing 230.

At the White House, President Clinton called the downing of the jetliner a "terrible, terrible tragedy."

And with clues scarce, Clinton repeatedly urged Americans not to presume that the crash was the work of terrorists.

"We do not know what caused this tragedy," the president said. "We will determine what happened."

The FBI-New York Police Department Joint Terrorist Task Force assumed leadership of the investigation, but officials stressed that this did not imply any conclusion about the cause of the crash.

The task force will work alongside the National Transportation Safety Board, which routinely investigates airline accidents.

Through yesterday, fears rose that terrorists were responsible for the crash -- though White House and State Department officials took pains to say they had no evidence of foul play.

Officials said the possibilities under investigation range from a catastrophic mechanical failure that ignited the airplane's 250,000 pounds of fuel, to a brazen act of terrorism such as a bomb secreted on board or a surface-to-air missile fired from below.

Law enforcement officials involved in the investigation said they had based their speculation about a missile attack largely on the accounts of some witnesses who reported seeing flaming streaks and flashes of light before the Boeing 747 exploded.

ABC News reported that an Arabic newspaper received a warning of an attack on an American target Wednesday from the same group that claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed five Americans in Saudi Arabia in November.

But the U.S. State Department said it did not view the letter as a specific warning.

"To us it seemed to be a general political tract. We don't see it as a specific threat," department spokesman Nicholas Burns said of the letter to Al Hayat, an Arabic-language newspaper published in London.

Coast Guard and federal aviation officials who surveyed the crash area, about 10 miles south of the eastern edge of Long Island, said the plane had broken into small pieces, some sinking and some floating across a 200-square-mile search area.

They did not rule out the possibility that a bomb had brought down the jumbo jet.

But Robert Francis, vice chairman of the NTSB, cautioned: "We have no evidence at this point that this was not an accident.

"There's a lot of wreckage out there, and until we can start piecing it back together, we're not going to know what happened," Francis said.

By late yesterday, searchers had recovered more than 100 bodies, many of them charred.

Refrigerator trucks were brought to East Moriches, where a temporary morgue was set up. Remains were brought to the shore on rafts, and workers in white jumpsuits put them in body bags.

"It's still being treated as a potential crime scene by the FBI," said New York Gov. George E. Pataki, who visited the recovery command center.

At Kennedy Airport and airports in Paris and Rome -- the plane's final destination -- shellshocked relatives of the victims were ushered into private areas and comforted by counselors and clergy.

Two busloads of people arrived in New York from Montoursville, Pa., where townspeople mourned the loss of 16 members of the high school French club and five chaperons.

The plane's two "black box" recorders, which provide crucial information to investigators, haven't been found, Francis said.

One of the boxes measures data such as altitude and speed. The other records the crew's cockpit conversations.

A team of divers was brought in yesterday to begin searching for pieces of wreckage that sank in about 140 feet of water off Moriches Inlet, a picturesque spot with quiet beaches and marshy knolls.

The coastal town of East Moriches yesterday found itself the host of grim recovery efforts. Police turned the town's baseball field into a parking lot for reporters and photographers.

The TWA crash was the latest in a succession of recent airline disasters.

In May, 110 people died when a ValuJet plane crashed into the Everglades. Earlier this month, two Delta Air Line passengers were killed on the ground when parts of an engine sliced into a plane's fuselage.

The first reports of the TWA crash came about 8: 40 p.m. Wednesday from witnesses as far away as Connecticut, who reported seeing an inferno in the sky.

Two crews of New York Air National Guard flights witnessed the explosion. They "saw the fireball twisting as it came down, leaving a corkscrew trail of smoke," said Lt. Col. Chuck Stueve, who talked to them afterward. One crew radioed a mayday to the Coast Guard.

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