TWA bomb theory gains support Explosive device called likely cause

July 29, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The front end of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 broke away, plunging toward the Atlantic Ocean, while the rest of the plane continued to hurtle through the air, engines still running, before bursting into an enormous fireball seconds later, law enforcement officials said yesterday.

Several federal law enforcement officials said the new finding strengthened their belief that a bomb, possibly stored in the front cargo hold, blew off part of the forward portion of the plane.

Although there are no forensic tests that have definitively shown that an explosive device caused the crash, officials said yesterday that a bomb was the most likely reason for the Boeing 747 to break apart, yet manage to stay aloft until the rest exploded on July 17, nine miles off East Moriches, N.Y. All 230 people aboard were killed.

Salvage workers found pieces of the front of the plane, including first-class and business-class seats and two nose wheels, in an area of the Atlantic Ocean about 1 1/2 miles behind a larger area of debris where other pieces of the plane's fuselage, including chunks of a wing and three engines, were located on the ocean floor.

Federal officials said they would not conclude definitively that a bomb caused the explosion until they had found a piece of fuselage that tested positive for chemicals consistent with an explosive.

And until then, they refused yesterday to rule out a mechanical failure or a missile fired at the plane from below, though they now say both possibilities are far less likely.

"Other than a bomb, there is just no other good mechanical explanation for the front part of the aircraft to be a mile and a half behind the rest of the aircraft," a top federal official said yesterday.

Another official said that all that is missing is a positive forensic finding.

"It looks, feels, acts and sounds like a bomb," the official said. "But until we get a positive hit, we can't say that for sure."

In the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, the cockpit, nose and forward cabin were all severed from the rest of the plane when a bomb in the forward cargo hold exploded.

Investigators said that is one of several parallels between the crashes of Flight 800 and Flight 103. In both crashes, the plane's forward cabin blew off the plane. And in both cases, as well as that of an Air India plane brought down by a bomb in 1985, the cockpit voice recorder picked up a nearly imperceptible, fraction-of-a-second sound just before lapsing into silence. Investigators are analyzing that sound, and comparing it to that of Flight 103, but have revealed no conclusion.

"Things that come off first tend to be an indicator of what happened, and we're always interested in things that come off first," said Robert T. Francis, the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

James K. Kallstrom, the assistant director of the FBI, suggested that criminal investigators were just one critical forensic test away from determining whether the plane was brought down by a criminal act.

"It could be the next piece that the Navy turns over to us," Kallstrom said at a press briefing. "I think within the next 48 hours we'll get something that we think is going to give us the clues that we need."

Investigators said they would begin retrieving large sections of the airplane from the ocean floor for comprehensive testing, saying for the first time that some resources would be diverted from the search for more human remains.

Investigators also said they would scour the debris site containing the front part of the plane for pieces of fuselage. To help in that effort, a third Navy ship, the Grapple, is to join the recovery effort to hoist large sections of fuselage to the surface.

So far, recovery crews have only lifted several relatively small chunks of the plane to the surface -- a 15-foot-by-4-foot piece of the right wing, which was recovered Saturday, and two wheels from the front landing gear were brought up yesterday.

Those pieces were flown to the FBI laboratory in Washington late yesterday.

If indeed the explosion was caused by a bomb brought aboard an airliner in a U.S. airport, security experts said, it would likely compel demands for the industry to increase safety drastically.

One of the weakest links at the nation's airports, the experts say, is the very people who work in them. Dozens of workers -- hired with only the most cursory of background checks -- have access to planes waiting on airport tarmacs and, security experts say, could easily plant a bomb aboard an airliner.

"This is the major hole in the system," said Henry I. DeGeneste, who for six years was superintendent of the New York-New Jersey Port Authority police, which patrols the three New York area airports and other Port Authority property. "I would be less concerned with the luggage screening; what I would be concerned with is what goes on on the tarmac.

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