Investigators to redirect attention to center of jet Officials caution answers in TWA crash still could take weeks, if not fTC longer

August 13, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SMITHTOWN, N.Y. -- Discouraged that they have yet to find evidence of a bomb or mechanical failure in the cockpit or front cargo section of TWA Flight 800, federal recovery workers said yesterday that they plan to redirect their attention to the center of the aircraft.

The officials also strongly cautioned that although 50 percent of the plane wreckage has now been recovered, it could take weeks if not longer to determine why the New York-to-Paris jetliner exploded 11 1/2 minutes after takeoff on July 17.

All 230 passengers and crew members were killed after the plane's front section broke away as it climbed more than 13,000 feet into the night sky.

To give a picture of how slowly the underwater recovery effort is going, National Transportation and Safety Board Vice Chairman Robert Francis said: "When I was out there today, they brought out a basket which represented 12 hours of work with a deep drone. And they had 15 pieces of aircraft wreckage, none of which were particularly large."

Officials said they also now know where the fourth, and final, jet engine landed in the waters off East Moriches, N.Y. They said experts plan to examine all four engines together.

Authorities also announced that they found the body of another victim, raising the number of recovered victims to 199.

By refocusing on the center of the 747 jumbo jet, experts with the NTSB and the FBI are attempting to rebuild the plane's middle section -- which includes the central passenger area as well as a middle fuel tank that was basically empty at takeoff, holding only several hundred gallons of fuel.

The center section also includes the spot where the wings join the fuselage. Already, experts have found heavy burn patterns where the right wing met the fuselage. But they do not yet know whether those burns are from the explosion or the resultant fire.

In contrast, the cockpit, front cargo section and galley areas have shown no "extraordinary" signs of an explosion, Francis said.

But officials were not prepared to say why an explosion in the middle or rear of the plane would cause the front of the aircraft to break off.

"I don't know enough about planes to answer that question or what happens to them aerodynamically and pressure-wise," said James Kallstrom, an assistant FBI director who is overseeing the investigation's criminal phase.

Kallstrom agreed with Francis' summation that the recovery is going very slowly. He noted that with stormy weather expected for the middle of this week, scuba diving and other salvage work may have to be postponed, causing further delays.

"It's awful hard to tell whether we're talking another week or two weeks or what before we're done here," he said.

Pub Date: 8/13/96

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