Dredging uncovers new trove of debris from TWA Flight 800 Some pieces of wreckage are probably from center fuel tank, officials say

November 07, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- After painstaking sweeps with sophisticated sonar and metal detectors and more than 3,200 forays by scuba divers, investigators of the crash of TWA Flight 800 thought they had found all that they were going to find of the shattered jumbo jet.

But in just 2 1/2 days this week, crude scallop dredges raking the sandy crash site uncovered hundreds of pounds of buried wreckage, large and small, any piece of which could provide the critical clue to explain what ignited a blast that destroyed the jet on July 17, killing the 230 people aboard.

Among the pieces pulled up yesterday are some that are probably from the center fuel tank, investigators said. That section of the plane holds the key to the crash, they believe.

Since dredging began early Monday morning, more than 60 bags of wreckage have been brought up, providing the first substantial new haul of potential clues in more than a month.

A boatload of aircraft debris sent ashore yesterday afternoon included some pieces too large for bags, including almost a dozen curved metal beams or frames -- some 4 to 6 feet long -- and one of the jet's tires, 4 feet in diameter.

Federal crash investigators were energized by the new finds, hopeful that answers might finally be produced for one of the most confounding disasters in the history of commercial aviation.

Although investigators have just begun to analyze the new finds, they are already "pretty excited," said Shelly Hazle, an official of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Fair weather has allowed two chartered scallop-fishing boats to work around the clock, said Craig Bagley, the manager of search and recovery operations for Oceaneering International, a private company running the operation under a contract with the Navy.

A couple of hundred pounds of newly dredged wreckage was being examined yesterday for any indications that an explosive device or mechanical failure had destroyed the jet.

So far, investigators know only that something instantly cut power, caused a loud noise on voice recorders and broke off the front of the jet, ahead of the wings. They also know that the center fuel tank exploded, but they have not concluded what set it off or whether that blast alone led to the plane's destruction.

The pieces appearing to be from the center fuel tank were tentatively identified by an NTSB investigator aboard one of the boats, Hazle said. Further analysis by specialists on shore will be needed to confirm that, she said.

Everything in and around the fuel tank is considered vital to finding the source of whatever flame, spark, heat or explosion ignited the blast.

So far, Hazle said, the dredging has not turned up a much-sought piece: the last fuel pump from the center tank, a beer-can-sized pump used to empty small amounts of fuel.

Officials at the Suffolk County Medical Examiner's Office said that plans were being made for forensic experts to inspect the recovered material for any human remains. Sixteen victims are still missing, and one recovered body remains unidentified.

Robert Golden, the county's chief medical investigator, said there was a reasonable chance that more remains might be recovered, particularly after fishermen using similar commercial trawling gear chanced upon a victim's body last month, the only identifiable remains discovered in weeks.

The scalloping technique, in which pairs of 15-foot-wide iron dredges are drawn across the sand like plows across a field, had to be used last so investigators could first develop a map of all of the known debris, investigators said.

The location of particular pieces on the sea floor has helped investigators retrace how the jet came apart, a critical part of the search for the blast's origin.

Using this data, the safety board is continuing to develop a computer simulation of the crash.

The map of debris on the sea floor has been meshed with radar traces of the flight's final moments, technical experts working on the simulation said.

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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