'Microscopic explosive' found on TWA jet part Evidence doesn't confirm criminal act, FBI says

August 24, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SMITHTOWN, N.Y. -- Federal law enforcement officials announced publicly yesterday that "microscopic explosive traces" have been found on part of the airplane wreckage of TWA Flight 800.

But they cautioned that the small amount of residue, which is still being examined by forensic experts, is not yet enough to tell investigators how or why the jumbo jet carrying 230 people exploded last month.

"Based on the evidence to date," said James Kallstrom, head of the FBI's field office in New York, "investigators cannot conclude whether this tragedy was the result of a criminal act."

Kallstrom declined to provide details on the kind of residue found. But other federal law enforcement sources, speaking anonymously, said it was traces of PETN, a potent plastic explosive component that has been used in airplane bombs and surface-to-air missiles.

They described the amount of PETN uncovered in the FBI's Washington laboratory as no larger than a "speckle." They said it was found on a piece of seating material on the right side of the plane's passenger compartment, between Rows 17 and 28.

That area of the plane -- the central fuselage -- has become for investigators the most likely spot where the explosion originated, whether from a bomb, a missile strike or a mechanical failure.

Appearing at a hastily called news briefing to refute rumors that the FBI now considered the disaster a criminal act, Kallstrom departed from his normally low-key attitude and read a carefully written statement he hoped would tell the U.S. public exactly where the investigation stands.

"As a result of scientific analysis conducted by federal examiners, microscopic explosive traces of unknown origin have been found relating to TWA Flight 800," he said. "However, based on all of the scientific and forensic evidence analyzed to date, we cannot conclude that TWA Flight 800 crashed as a result of an explosive device," he continued.

"Forensic experts outside the government, consulted by the FBI, agree that the detection of the microscopic explosive traces alone does not allow the conclusion that TWA Flight 800 crashed as a result of an explosive device."

He said more corroborative evidence must be found, none of which has been detected so far after more than 60 percent of the plane's wreckage has been recovered from the ocean floor.

"For example," he said, "physical damage or patterns characteristic of a detonation would need to be available in addition to confirmed explosives as trace findings before a positive conclusion of an explosive device could be made."

That description compares with those of the two law enforcement sources, who cautioned that PETN could have come from the clothing of a hunter, soldier or quarry worker, indeed, from anyone who might have come in contact for whatever reason with explosive material before boarding the plane.

They said it also could have come from Navy equipment used to hoist the wreckage out of the water and transport it back to land. But Rear Adm. Ed Kristensen, who is overseeing the Navy salvage operation, said there were no residues on either of two large Navy ships "that could have contaminated anything."

In addition, the sources said it is perplexing that only a small piece of PETN was found, because a bomb or missile explosion should have left behind more and larger splotches.

The 747 jetliner exploded shortly after takeoff as it climbed past 13,000 feet on the evening of July 17. All but 20 of the victims have been recovered.

Pub Date: 8/24/96

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