Landing gear damage points to bomb on TWA flight Retracted nose wheel took strong blast, probers say

July 31, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SMITHTOWN, N.Y. -- The front landing gear of the Boeing 747 that crashed off the coast here July 17 shows damage from a powerful blast inside the plane, the first clear physical evidence that the plane was brought down by a bomb, federal investigators said last night.

The landing gear would have been retracted into its housing inside the fuselage long before the plane exploded, and the hydraulic mechanism that retracts it was found to have "serious concussive damage," a federal investigator said. "By the way it had been smashed, the bomb experts thought it had been very close to the source of the explosion."

The front cargo hold carrying passengers' baggage was just behind the landing gear. The first-class seating area was above. Investigators said they believe a bomb might have been in one of the passengers' bags -- or perhaps in a food cart or a bathroom in the cabin above.

For the past week, law enforcement officials investigating the crash of TWA Flight 800 have been saying they believed the plane was destroyed by a bomb, but they have been waiting to find a piece of clear physical evidence to support the theory.

The latest discovery caused a stir among the divers, Navy and Coast Guard technicians and federal agents who recovered the piece Saturday.

Samples of apparent residue found on the landing gear have been sent to the FBI lab in Washington to see if they hold chemical traces of an explosive.

One investigator who saw the hydraulic unit described the damage as "more like a crack than a tear."

"The vast majority of the wreckage has been these torn, mangled pieces of thin metal, from the fuselage," he said. "This was a huge piece of thick steel, and it had been blasted, is the only way to describe it."

Investigators also said yesterday that a cargo door, presumably the front one, had been found significantly closer to New York City's Kennedy International Airport than almost all of the other parts located so far, tending to support the theory that a bomb exploded in the forward cargo hold, blowing off the door.

The plane, bound for Paris with 230 passengers and crew members, was, in essence, decapitated as it was climbing to about 13,700 feet, spreading wreckage over several miles. The main section of the plane, engines apparently still running, flew on and plummeted to about 8,500 feet. There, it exploded in a fireball that was visible for miles.

The searchers have recovered 171 bodies, and 165 have been positively identified. Of those, 157 have been returned to next of kin.

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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