Crash investigators find 'twilight zone' of murky clues Two-pronged search lacks solid hypothesis

July 20, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Unraveling the mystery of the crash of TWA flight 800 is as sophisticated as a high-tech underwater device being shipped to the scene to listen for the electronic beep of the missing flight data recorder.

And it's as simple as investigators knocking on doors along the Long Island coastline to ask if anyone saw anything unusual in the sky.

Pursuing everything from hunches to twisted hunks of airplane fuselage resting 120 feet under water, investigators have opened their inquiry on seemingly countless fronts in the 48 hours since the 747 airliner apparently exploded and crashed in the ocean nine miles from the shore on Wednesday night.

The investigation was evident yesterday on Pier 8 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where a Coast Guard cutter was depositing pieces of airplane wreckage snagged from the water. It had done the same in the hours after the crash at the Central Intelligence Agency's Counter-Terrorism Center, where computers were put to work looking for a hint, a clue, anything to go on.

Despite the speculation about the possibility of a terrorist attack on the airplane bound for Paris, the wide array of activities reflects what investigators say is the absence of a strong lead on a culprit, either human or mechanical.

"We're in a twilight zone of sorts," said one investigator. "We are in a fog and we are waiting for it to lift."

The investigation is being pursued on two tracks. The National Transportation Safety Board, the lead agency in the inquiry, is investigating the mechanics of the crash: the airplane and the actions of the pilot.

The FBI, meanwhile, is looking for evidence of criminal activity.

Each has begun the tedious task of finding and fitting together pieces of a puzzle. And it is a clear possibility that their two pictures may eventually merge.

The safety investigators began one of their main tasks yesterday when they took pieces of the airplane to a building at the former Grumman Corp. plant in Calverton, N.Y., where they will try to roughly re-assemble the airplane in hopes of finding clues to the cause of the crash.

The remnants were carried on an 18-wheel truck, which lumbered down a country road toward the old plant in a funereal procession escorted by police cruisers. The plane's pieces will be laid out in a building known as Plant 6, a 300,205-square-foot hangar that can easily accommodate the 747 airliner.

A federal air safety investigator, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that reconstructing the plane would allow officials to get a picture of how it came apart.

If there was a blast, as investigators strongly suspect, the nature of the damage to metal parts of the plane will tell investigators whether the explosion came from the outside of the fuselage, from an exploding engine, for example, or from the inside, like a bomb in the cargo hold.

There are roughly 50 FBI agents on the scene at East Moriches, and many are conducting interviews with anyone and everyone who might have seen something in the sky.

They are trying to find "trained" witnesses, investigators said, like law enforcement or military personnel who might have the best sense of what it was they had seen.

At the same time, federal investigators at the FBI's command center at 26 Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan have spent part of the last two days constructing possible occurrences based on their experience with known terrorists.

On Thursday morning, the FBI called in David Kelly and Patrick Fitzgerald, the co-chiefs of the Organized Crime and Terrorism Unit of the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York.

Pub Date: 7/20/96

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