Investigators say TWA jet flew briefly after 'event' Radar records show jetliner stayed up 24 seconds before fireball

July 27, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SMITHTOWN, N.Y. -- Radar records show that TWA Flight 800 apparently continued to fly for at least 24 seconds after the cataclysmic event that doomed it, raising the possibility that some of the passengers and crew may have been alive in the last horrifying seconds before the crippled jet broke apart in a fireball, investigators said yesterday.

The radar information does not give a clue as to whether the cockpit crew had any functioning controls to work with after the plane was disabled at 13,700 feet by either a mechanical problem, a bomb or a missile -- investigators still do not know which.

But the investigators said the records indicated that the jetliner's engines probably continued to run as it moved over the water at more than 400 miles an hour. The plane was also descending rapidly, and by the time it reached about 8,500 feet, a fireball erupted, fed by the jet fuel that investigators presume was gushing from the plane's tanks.

The scenario, based on information from a radar dish that takes 12 seconds to make a 360-degree sweep of several thousand miles, did not make investigators any more certain of the cause of the problems. But it did help establish the framework for a sequence of failures.

According to the investigators, the radar made two sweeps after the initial event in which the plane appeared to be basically intact. But by the time the radar made its third 12-second sweep, two pieces of the plane became visible on radar.

Federal officials said that there were no signs of problems on either the flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder except for a loud noise at the end of the voice recorder, and except for the obvious fact that they quit working a fraction of a second after the noise was heard.

Investigators also said they had found two of the plane's four engines. But they said they had decided to delay raising them and assessing their condition -- which could provide major clues -- because doing so would delay the recovery of bodies. Searchers have now brought up the remains of nearly two-thirds of the 230 people on board, and nearly half have been turned over to next-of-kin.

Divers reportedly found the body of 9-year-old Jay Carven of Bel Air on Thursday. The boy was flying with his mother, Paula Carven, an off-duty TWA flight attendant. Ms. Carven's body and the body of James Hurd III of Glen Burnie, the fourth Maryland victim, have not yet been found.

The first funeral for a Maryland victim of TWA Flight 800 was held Friday in Anne Arundel County as hundreds of mourners came together to remember Pamela Crandell. Crandell, a first-grade teacher, lived in Tracys Landing and taught in Crownsville.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the last moment of normal functioning was at about 8: 31: 12 p.m., when the plane was climbing toward 15,000 feet. Within 12 seconds of then -- the time that a radar at Islip, N.Y., takes to make a full-circle snapshot of planes in its sector -- the beacon that broadcasts the plane's identity and altitude failed.

About the same time, possibly at the same instant, power was cut to the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder. And sometime around then the pilots' radios probably ceased to function.

But the plane was in the air for another 2.8 miles, another 41 seconds. For at least 24 of those seconds, the jetliner continued at a more or less constant speed over the water, about 440 mph, but its speed through the air was apparently rising rapidly, because it was descending to the point where it became a fireball. A normal airliner descends at about 1,500 feet per minute; this would have been about five times faster.

In that rapid descent it was apparently also shedding some large, though relatively light pieces, which were found in what investigators now call Debris Field No. 2, an area southeast of the plane's track over the water. These may be sides of the fuselage, investigators say.

The plane, having arrived from Athens, Greece, earlier in the day with no mechanical problems, took off lightly loaded from John F. Kennedy International Airport and climbed at the standard speed of 250 knots, or 287 mph, to 10,000 feet.

That first event probably happened at 13,700 feet, because that is the last altitude reported by the on-board transponder, which gives the plane's identity and altitude. By the time the radar looked again, there was only the "primary return," or ordinary radar echo.

Robert T. Francis, the vice-chairman of the safety board, said yesterday afternoon that the cockpit voice recorder ended with "a loud, unknown noise." The flight data recorder also ended abruptly.

And experts surmise that the radios must have failed too, or the pilots would have sent a distress signal, or at least said that they could not maintain their climb; failure to report that would be to invite a midair collision.

But they do not know the sequence of these events, and precisely how each of those pieces of equipment -- the radios, the recorders and the transponder -- are supplied with electric power. They believe, though, that they can establish those facts from evidence on the ground, and then, perhaps, figure out where on the airplane the problem originated.

Investigators have no evidence of a major breakup of the plane before the fireball. They are persuaded that the fireball happened 5,000 feet below the initiating event.

Pub Date: 7/27/96

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