Clinton tightens airport security Heightened checks of passengers, cargo, luggage ordered

No conclusions on crash

Jet's voice recorder contains sound lasting fraction of second

July 26, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- After spending almost three somber hours with relatives of the victims killed in the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800, President Clinton announced yesterday that he had ordered several steps to tighten security at the nation's airports, including heightened scrutiny of passengers, luggage and cargo.

Clinton said that the new security measures were intended to calm the nerves of travelers worried by the crash, but he added that the government had not yet drawn any conclusions about what caused it.

"While we seek the cause of the disaster, let us all agree that we must not wait to alleviate the concerns of the American people about air safety and air security," Clinton said in remarks to reporters at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Also yesterday, investigators examining the plane's cockpit voice recorder, pulled from the wreckage in the waters off Long Island early yesterday morning, said the device captured a sound lasting just a fraction of a second before it stopped functioning. While no one was willing to draw firm conclusions from that, law enforcement officials said it supported the theory that the plane was destroyed by a bomb. At the crash site, searchers recovered the remains of 12 more people yesterday, leaving 103 bodies still to be pulled from the water.

Clinton said the new security measures, to take effect immediately, could increase the cost and inconvenience of air travel, but added, "The safety and security of the American people must be our top priority."

Emphasizing that he did not know what caused the crash of Flight 800, he said: "If it proves to be a mechanical failure, additional safety measures may be required. If it proves to be a criminal act, other security steps may be required. Whatever needs to be done, we will do it."

Referring to the crash, an airport security directive issued by the Federal Aviation Administration yesterday said: "A determination as to the cause of the incident has not been made, and it is difficult to ascertain when that determination will be made, but a terrorist attack by means of an improvised explosive device cannot be ruled out."

Clinton also said he had asked Vice President Al Gore to lead a commission to review aviation safety and airport security, as well as the pace of modernization of the air traffic control system. Gore is to report back to the president within 45 days. Clinton said Gore would come up with a plan to deploy new machines that can detect sophisticated explosives in baggage, and perhaps cargo as well.

After days of mounting anger over the pace of the investigation, family members and even some of Clinton's sharper critics seemed heartened by the visit.

"He's gone a long way to reassuring people that we are concerned, that the country is concerned and that all is being done that can be done," said Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, who accompanied Clinton yesterday.

Administration officials characterized the new safety measures as the third in a series of government steps to make flying safer. They said airport officials would immediately begin hand-inspecting more bags and interviewing more passengers.

The directive said the searches would be frequent enough "so that a physical search is on-going at each X-ray unit at all times."

David Hinson, the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said that because of the new measures, travelers should expect delays "from 15 minutes to a little over a half-hour," at least at first. He added that the delays should ease as airlines master the new rules.

Officials urged passengers to arrive at airports earlier, with photo identification ready and luggage clearly labeled.

Echoing the president, administration officials repeatedly said that the issuance of the new security measures yesterday did not mean that conclusions had been drawn about what caused the crash of Flight 800.

"The security measures that are being put in place are simply prudent and responsible measures to institute in light of a long-standing security threat in our country," said Federico F. Pena, secretary of transportation, who accompanied Clinton.

But at a separate crash-investigation briefing yesterday, James Kallstrom, the FBI agent in charge of the inquiry, said: "We know there was a catastrophic explosion; it was caused by some kind of bomb, obviously explosion."

But then Kallstrom quickly added: "We're not further describing how that would be, whether it was carried on, whether something hit the plane from the outside and caused it to explode, or a mechanical problem that has nothing to do with terrorism or criminality; or something in the cargo that would have caused a mechanical problem."

Since the crash, investigators have said they believe the jet could have been destroyed by a bomb, a surface-to-air missile or an unknown, catastrophic mechanical problem.

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