NTSB: TWA 800 Probe Nearing End

  The Associated Press  7/15/99


 WASHINGTON (AP) - Three years after TWA Flight 800 turned into a fireball in 
 the skies off New York's Long Island, the end of the investigation is finally 
 in sight.

 Investigators are certain that a fuel-air explosion in the center fuel tank 
 brought down the Boeing 747 on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 aboard, but a 
 final determination of the ignition source will have to wait until this fall 
 or winter, Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, 
 said Wednesday in an interview.

 For the safety board, the investigation has been the longest and most 
 expensive probe in its 30-year history. Hall said he didn't yet want staffers 
 diverting their time to tallying the cost, but ``it's clearly going to be 
 millions and millions of dollars.''

 Bernard Loeb, the panel's head of aviation safety, said investigators already 
 have examined the possibility of a static electricity buildup, stray current 
 from nearby fuel pumps and electrical shorts in the tank's fuel gauge system.

 The final phase of their work is now focusing on possible electromagnetic 
 induction, which occurs when electricity from an active source or wire causes 
 a trace of activity in a nearby inactive wire.

 Investigators have studied external sources such as radar-emitting military 
 planes and ships. They have also looked at carryon items such as laptop 
 computers and other personal electronics.

 Now they are testing electronics built into the plane itself, although they 
 have not ruled out any of the earlier possibilities.

 ``We don't favor any particular ways of getting ignition, but we know there 
 are a number of them, and the FAA has addressed some of them,'' Loeb said.

 In directives issued since the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration has 
 ordered a series of safety changes on a variety of airplanes. They include 
 new wiring checks on older aircraft, the installation of extra wire 
 insulation and a prohibition on draining the center fuel tanks in 747s, a 
 practice that can cause overheating in fuel-pump bearings.

 Both Hall and Loeb indicated the five-member safety board likely would 
 recommend further safety precautions when it holds its final meeting about 
 the crash.

 ``I'm still hopeful that we will be able to have our final board meeting and 
 final report by the end of the year,'' the chairman said as he sat in his 
 office with binders about the crash nearby. He said if there were delays, the 
 meeting would occur by ``early winter.''

 The Paris-bound flight exploded in a clear evening sky shortly after takeoff 
 from New York's Kennedy International Airport. The wreckage fell 13,000 feet 
 into the waters off Long Island. There were no survivors.

 Over the following weeks, the Navy, FBI and other state, federal and local 
 agencies mounted a massive recovery operation and investigation. It included 
 checks for bomb-toting terrorists and eyewitness reports that a missile was 
 seen streaking toward the jumbo jet.

 Investigators also partially rebuilt the airplane in a hangar in Calverton, 
 N.Y., in their search for clues.

 The relatives of the victims planned a series of remembrances this weekend, 
 including a memorial service and the dedication of a monument. Both Hall and 
 Loeb were to attend and also deliver an investigation update to the families.

 While some have speculated that the plane was blown up by terrorists or the 
 military, the FBI concluded that no criminal act was involved. On Wednesday, 
 Hall adamantly repeated that the plane was not harmed by a missile.

 ``Stories will probably continue past my lifetime,'' he said. ``One of the 
 board's important roles is to protect the integrity of investigations and, in 
 doing so, the integrity of the government we all work for.''

 AP-NY-07-15-99 0619EDT

  Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.