NEW YORK -- After three frustrating days, recovery workers searching for the wreckage of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 yesterday found a large area of debris from the airplane, including four bodies, on the floor of the ocean off Long Island.
An official said divers saw three sections of the fuselage on the ocean floor.
The discovery marked the first time since the plane exploded over the Atlantic Ocean Wednesday night that divers reached the ocean floor, where investigators expect to find most of the 747 jetliner and the 126 bodies that remain unaccounted for.
"I would characterize this as a major find because we're starting to get significant parts of the fuselage," said Robert Francis, the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who is leading the investigation. Federal investigators have so far recovered only about 1 percent of the plane.
The officials said they hoped the new pieces would help them determine whether an explosive device or a mechanical malfunction caused the plane to explode shortly after it left John F. Kennedy International Airport for Paris, killing all 230 people aboard.
Until yesterday, recovery teams devoted most of their effort to retrieving the bodies. Beginning today, they are to begin large-scale salvage of the wreckage, federal officials said.
Gov. George E. Pataki announced the debris discovery to about 600 relatives of the victims who had gathered on the beach at a Suffolk County park in East Moriches for a memorial service.
"God works in strange ways," Pataki told the victims' relatives, referring to the discovery that came as the service was under way. "A major part of the fuselage has been found. Additional bodies have been located."
"We're hopeful that your agony and struggle will come to a quicker end," the governor added.
Also yesterday, investigators got their first tentative piece of evidence that the plane might have been destroyed by an explosive device.
According to several federal officials and investigators, a preliminary examination of a fragment from the wreckage, by a sophisticated machine designed to detect the presence of residues from powerful explosives, yielded what was described by one officer as "a borderline positive reading."
The fragment was a part of one of the plane's wings, pulled from the water yesterday, and the test was conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
But a second test on the same fragment with another machine -- this time conducted by the FBI -- did not show traces of explosives.
As a result, federal investigators were unwilling to draw firm conclusions and sent the airplane part to the main FBI crime lab in Quantico, Va., for further testing.
Nonetheless, investigators said they were intrigued that the metal was pockmarked in a way that was consistent with the sort of damage caused by an explosive device.
They also noted that the piece came from the underside of the wing, close to the baggage compartment. If the plane was felled by a bomb, law enforcement officials said, the explosive device could have been hidden in the baggage hold.
James Kallstrom, the assistant FBI director for the New York office, said Sunday night that authorities were investigating three possible explanations for the explosion of the plane: that it was destroyed by a catastrophic mechanical malfunction, by a bomb secreted onto the airplane or by a missile fired from below the plane.
Kallstrom had expressed frustration at the slow pace of the recovery operation, saying that if the crash was caused by foul play, the criminals involved were getting more time to cover their tracks.
He was encouraged by the discovery of the airplane parts found yesterday. "I think it's a big step forward," Kallstrom told reporters.
Federal officials said the wreckage was discovered when evidence of obstructions on the ocean floor was picked up by sonar equipment being dragged through the water by a ship working under contract with the Navy.
Divers then found the airplane parts, including a section of the fuselage. A law enforcement official said some of the bodies were still strapped in their seats.
The four bodies brings to 104 the number of people whose remains have been retrieved.
Of those, 55 had been positively identified last night by the Suffolk County medical examiner's office, and 33 of them had been released to relatives of the deceased. Francis said he did not expect the debris found yesterday to be brought to the surface until today.
But a law enforcement official said divers videotaped the wreckage while they were underwater so it could be examined quickly for any evidence of what caused the crash.
Francis reported no progress in recovering the airplane's two "black boxes" -- the in-flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder -- which investigators say could be crucial for determining what happened to the airplane.
That meant that they were either damaged or buried under sand or other debris.
Pub Date: 7/23/96