NEW YORK -- Stopping just short of ruling out sabotage as the cause of the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said yesterday that the evidence in the case points to a "catastrophic mechanical failure" and emphasized the need to draw the criminal inquiry to a close.
Freeh's comments sent the strongest signal yet that the FBI was moving toward abandoning its search for clues to a crime in the July 17 midair explosion of the Boeing 747 off Long Island that killed 230 people.
"I think that the evidence, as we've developed it to date, and particularly the evidence which we have not found, would lead the inquiry toward the conclusion that this was a catastrophic mechanical failure," Freeh said on the NBC television program "Meet The Press."
He said that criminal investigators had not made a final determination about the crash but that "we need to get a conclusion."
He added: "We have to get some closure as to this case. But the evidence is certainly not moving in the direction of a terrorist act. It is, in fact, moving in the other direction."
Freeh's comments echo what has been said in recent days by James Kallstrom, the assistant FBI director in New York, who is heading the criminal inquiry. But Freeh, who rarely speaks publicly about cases, has been much more circumspect about the direction of the investigation when asked about it previously.
During the past few days, Kallstrom also has been more forthcoming in signaling the end of the FBI's inquiry, saying criminal investigators were in the final stages of their work and had not found evidence of sabotage.
The comments of both officials seemed intended to prepare the public for the final step in an extraordinary turnabout for many investigators: from near-certainty of terrorism immediately after the crash to the conclusion that a rare and, as yet, unidentified mechanical failure caused the plane to explode.
Kallstrom was not available for comment yesterday, but his spokesman, Joseph Valiquette, said that because no evidence of a crime has been found in 10 months, "logic would demand that we look more toward the mechanical."
On the hot, humid night last summer, however, the explosion that split the plane apart just after it left Kennedy International Airport for Paris was eerily reminiscent of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and it seemed inconceivable that it could have been an accident.
The FBI investigation once involved about 500 agents around the world, examining wreckage of the plane for forensic evidence of a blast and tracking terrorists and examining the lives of each of the victims in search of possible motives for a mass murder.
Now, about 50 agents are working on the case. Most of them are conducting a final examination of the 90-foot portion of the plane's fuselage, which has been reconstructed, in search of any evidence of a missile or bomb. Others are working to explain the accounts of more than 100 witnesses who said they saw lights streaking toward the plane before it exploded, which lent credence to the theory that a missile had hit the plane. FBI officials said it could take as long as 90 days before their work is completed.
If the FBI does formally give up the investigation, it will leave the job of determining the crash's cause to the National Transportation Safety Board, which has always headed the inquiry. Board engineers have determined that the plane's huge center fuel tank exploded after filling with fuel vapors. In December, board officials issued recommendations to guard against a similar situation in another plane. But the engineers have not been able to determine what ignited the fumes.
Yesterday, Peter Goelz, a safety board spokesman, said he concurred with Freeh's remarks that no evidence of sabotage has been found.
"These guys have conducted thousands of interviews, looked at and tested thousands of pieces of wreckage and they've yet to find anything to establish that the initiating event was a criminal one," Goelz said.
Some relatives of Flight 800 victims, who have been briefed regularly by safety board officials, said they were not surprised that the criminal investigation of the crash appeared to be winding down.
"We've been expecting that," said John Holst, a Long Island man whose son and daughter-in-law died in the crash. He said that since February, when he and other relatives toured the hangar in Calverton, N.Y., where investigators have reconstructed a section of the plane's fuselage, "I've been pretty convinced it was some sort of a mechanical failure."
Pub Date: 5/05/97