Associated Retired Aviation Professionals

August 5, 1996, Monday

Cockpit's Tangled Remains Leave Investigators Puzzled


Investigators yesterday took their first look at the battered remains of the cockpit of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 and said they were puzzled by how the plane's nerve center became gnarled into a one-ton ball of wires, metal, seats and switches.

Senior law enforcement officials said no cockpit in previous accidents resembled the 6-foot-high, 10-foot-wide mass of debris. They said a large metal beam from another section of the Boeing 747 is inexplicably lodged in the center of the cockpit wreckage, which one official likened to a metallic ball of twine that investigators would now begin to unravel.

The body of the plane's pilot, Capt. Ralph G. Kevorkian, 58, of Garden Grove, Calif., was also recovered, still strapped into his flight-deck seat, near the mound of wreckage, which was lifted off the ocean floor and delivered to the former Grumman hangar in Calverton, L.I., on Saturday night.

''Untangling that cockpit mass is going to take some time,'' said Robert T. Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. ''We are not expecting dramatic results from today to tomorrow.''

For two weeks, investigators have characterized the Boeing 747's cockpit as an important piece of wreckage that may help them determine the cause of the crash on July 17, just 11 1/2 minutes after it left Kennedy International Airport for Paris. All 230 people aboard were killed.

But now that they have a main piece of cockpit debris, investigators cautioned yesterday that it would probably take several days, or even longer, before analysis of the wreckage tells them anything conclusive about what brought the plane down.

James K. Kallstrom, the assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in New York, described the cockpit debris as ''a pile of things that are all mashed together.''

''To see that massive jumble of wires certainly brought home to me how difficult it's going to be if the rest of the front of the plane looks like that,'' Mr. Kallstrom said.

Law enforcement officials said last night that a new pile of wreckage, which they believe contains bottom pieces splintered off the front of the aircraft, was found near the area where the cockpit had been sitting.

In the next several days, investigators plan to pick apart pieces of the cockpit wreckage. Bomb experts will examine the cockpit at the Grumman hangar, looking for pitting consistent with a bomb blast. And some pieces of it will be tested for chemical residue from an explosive.

But at yesterday afternoon's press briefing, investigators attempted to lower expectations about how quickly they could conclusively determine whether the plane had been destroyed by a bomb, a missile attack or a catastrophic mechanical failure.

Law enforcement officials have said privately that they believe a bomb destroyed the aircraft, severing the cockpit and first-class cabin from the rest of the jet. For that reason, they said, the recovery of several large pieces from the front of the aircraft is potentially significant.

After 18 days of a painstaking recovery effort on the seas 10 miles off Long Island, salvage workers have retrieved several important pieces of the front of the aircraft, where they believe an explosion occurred.

Besides the main chunk of the cockpit, investigators have pulled up a 40- by 60-foot arc of metal from the roof over the first-class section of the jet, the left cargo door, a large metal cargo container and the front landing gear and nose wheels.

Samples of those pieces were tested for explosives in the last several days by agents of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms at the Grumman hangar. One law-enforcement official, who insisted on anonymity, said the test results were negative.

For the second straight day, the recovery effort accelerated as thousands of pounds of debris were brought through the Shinnecock Inlet. A steady convoy of barges hauled large heaps of wreckage to the Coast Guard station at Hampton Bays, L.I., where cranes transferred the wreckage to large trucks for a nine-mile trip to the Grumman hangar.

Salvage crew members said they expected to work 16-hour days. Before late Saturday, the only part of the cockpit visible to divers and underwater video cameras was the distinctive curved windshield. But investigators assumed, correctly, that the cockpit remains were nearby.

The remains of three more occupants of the plane were brought to the Suffolk County Medical Examiner's Office, raising the total number of bodies recovered to 194. Only 2 bodies remain unidentified, yet tentative identifications have been made, officials said.

At the Ramada Plaza Hotel near Kennedy airport, 11 families of crash victims still waited for word that their loved ones' bodies had been recovered and identified.

The relatives of four of the victims returned yesterday after having gone home, their hopes resuscitated after 10 bodies were recovered in the last two days.

Olivier Michel, 32, who has remained at the hotel throughout, said yesterday morning: ''We hope now, we really hope.'' By the end of the day, Mr. Michel finally heard the news he had waited so long to hear: The body of his brother, Pascal, had been identified.

For Marjorie Campbell, the vigil ended yesterday morning when she learned that the body of her husband, Richard G. Campbell, 63, of Ridgefield, Conn., a T.W.A. flight engineer, had been identified.

Mrs. Campbell said that her husband had been a pilot for 30 years but that airline rules prohibited people 60 years of age or older to work as pilots. But he refused to retire and, instead, he became a flight engineer, in part because he wanted to save enough money to put their two teen-age children through college. ''He loved flying,'' Mrs. Campbell said. ''That's what he wanted to do.''

To Mrs. Campbell, the news that her husband's remains were finally found triggered a swirl of colliding emotions. ''I was happy in one way and I was sad in another,'' she said. ''In one way, I was glad they found his body. But in another way, I know it's silly, but as long as they hadn't found him, maybe there was hope.''

And then she began to cry.

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