2nd explosives trace found in TWA debris Finding seen as step closer to crash cause

August 31, 1996|By THE BOSTON GLOBE

A second finding of microscopic traces of explosives in the debris of TWA Flight 800 has taken federal investigators a significant step closer to concluding that an explosive device -- and not mechanical failure -- downed the plane, a law enforcement source said yesterday.

"When you get another hit of trace evidence, the likelihood that this was mechanical failure becomes very slim, and the bomb or missile scenario become much more likely," the source said.

However, neither the National Transportation Safety Board nor the FBI has ruled that the crash was caused by an act of sabotage. Both say they need more information to make such a ruling.

"We're just not over the top yet. It may seem like splitting hairs, but the precise facts on this and the standards for a preponderance of evidence are very serious matters to the parties involved," the source said, elaborating on why federal authorities are so cautious in making their determination. "If you are a litigant in this case, it matters a lot. A whole lot."

A statement released Thursday by the FBI and the NTSB confirmed the finding of more trace evidence of explosives, but did not disclose the type of explosive or the location where it was found.

One federal investigator said the traces were found inside the rear cargo hold, toward the tail of the plane. The source said the traces may have been blown backward as a result of a blast, and that the location did not appear to contradict investigators' belief that the explosion that downed the plane occurred in the front section where the right wing meets the fuselage.

The statement also said that additional evidence -- such as "physical damage or patterns characteristic of a detonation" as well as more "trace findings" -- would be needed before the downing of the plane could be officially ruled an act of sabotage, and the control of the investigation shifted from the NTSB to the FBI.

The announcement of a second finding of traces of an explosive came a week after investigators confirmed that they had found microscopic evidence of the plastic explosive PETN on the flooring between rows 20 and 27.

Privately, highly placed federal law enforcement sources confirm that the new findings have helped them move closer to their initial belief that it was a bomb that took down the Boeing 747. But until the evidence is conclusive, both the FBI and the NTSB are insisting that all three leading theories -- a bomb, missile or mechanical failure -- remain on the board.

"We still cannot conclude that TWA Flight 800 crashed as the result of an explosive device," the NTSB and FBI statement said.

The Paris-bound Boeing 747 exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean after taking off from Kennedy International Airport on July 17. All 230 passengers and crew on board were killed.

Other developments pushing investigators to formulate a conclusion that it was an explosive device include:

Intensive tests on fuel pumps which found no failures or problems with short circuiting that could have led to an explosion of the central fuel tank.

Analysis of all the wreckage on a computer database which seems to indicate a pattern of damage that would indicate that a blast originated somewhere on the right-hand side of row 24.

Pub Date: 8/31/96

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