Associated Retired Aviation Professionals

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company 
The New York Times 

August 14, 1996, Wednesday, Late Edition - Final 
SECTION: Section B; Page 5; Column 1; Metropolitan Desk 

Fuel Tank's Condition Makes Malfunction Seem Less Likely 


Investigators examining the wreckage of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 have 
concluded that the center fuel tank caught fire as many as 24 seconds after 
the initial blast that split apart the plane, a finding that deals a serious 
blow to the already remote possibility that a mechanical accident caused the 
crash, officials said yesterday. 

For weeks investigators have said that if a mechanical malfunction -- rather 
than a bomb or a missile -- brought down the Boeing 747, an explosion in its 
center fuel tank, situated between the wings, would most likely have been 
responsible. But in recent days, investigators have concluded that the 
initial blast occurred elsewhere. They reached that conclusion after 
discovering that pieces of the fuel tank wreckage were "virtually 

This led investigators to conclude that the explosion did not rip through 
the center fuel tank, but rather occurred elsewhere. 

A senior investigator said the new evidence shows that the initial blast 
that severed the plane occurred slightly forward of the spot where the wings 
meet the fuselage, probably in the passenger cabin. 

Now that investigators say they think the center fuel tank did not explode, 
they say the only good explanations remaining are that a bomb or a missile 
brought down the plane off Long Island, shortly after it left Kennedy 
International Airport for Paris on July 17. All 230 people on board were 

Despite the new finding, National Transportation Safety Board officials are 
unwilling to rule out a mechanical failure. They note that most plane 
crashes that do not result from human error or a criminal act are caused by 
a series of events that have never occurred before, making it virtually 
impossible to envision every theory in the early stages of an investigation. 

By keeping open the possibility of a malfunction, safety board investigators 
can continue to pursue all possibilities, no matter how remote. 

"I don't think anything rules out anything at this point," said Robert T. 
Francis, vice chairman of the safety board. 

Mr. Francis was noncommittal about whether there was tangible evidence that 
an explosion ripped through the center fuel tank. "I would not want to say 
there was an explosion in the center fuel tank," he said. 

Another of the senior investigators said last night that they would not 
officially rule out a mechanical malfunction until they were ready to make 
public a conclusive determination that a bomb or rocket downed the airplane. 

But in 10 field tests at Calverton, L.I., chemists have detected residue 
consistent with an explosive, though in each case, subsequent tests at the 
F.B.I. lab in Washington were not conclusive. The manufacturer of the 
machine used at Calverton said that false results occur in only a fraction 
of cases. While the machine has its detractors, some senior Federal 
investigators say the positive results over the last few weeks have some 

The center fuel tank held about 50 gallons of jet fuel at the time of the 
crash. Almost every possible mechanical accident that investigators have 
envisioned has involved a quick series of malfunctions, perhaps including a 
spark from an adjacent electrical junction, that set off an explosion in the 

As the investigators theorized, a fuel tank explosion would have knocked out 
the plane's electrical system, disabling the flight data recorder and 
separating the forward area of the plane from the rest. Nothing else on 
board is thought to have had the ability to do all that. 

During the last two days, however, investigators discovered that some pieces 
of the fuel tank were charred or covered with soot from a fire, while other 
pieces showed little or no significant damage, suggesting that the tank did 
not explode. One official said recovered parts of the fuel tank are in 
"pristine condition." 

"It is clear that whatever set off the tank did not severely damage the 
tank," said one official, who insisted on anonymity. "Something else, most 
likely later, blew up the tank." 

Besides the condition of the fuel tank's wreckage, investigators say that 
the pattern of the debris they have recovered off the ocean floor has also 
persuaded them that a mechanical malfunction is highly unlikely. The pieces 
of the plane that were blown off first have been recovered from the debris 
field closest to Kennedy International Airport. 

Investigators displayed a chart yesterday that showed another piece of 
evidence suggesting that the blast occurred where the front of the wings 
meet the fuselage. A narrow stripe of the fuselage ahead of the wings was 
displayed in red, meaning that those pieces have been recovered from the 
area closest to Kennedy Airport and were the first to be blown off the 

Farther along the flight path, wreckage from the first class cabin and 
cockpit was found. A mile and half beyond that, wreckage from the engines, 
wing and tail have been recovered. From that pattern, investigators have 
drawn conclusions about how the first explosion caused the plane to break up 
at 13,700 feet. 

The blast's force decapitated the plane, severing the cockpit and 
first-class cabin, which then fell into the Atlantic Ocean. The rest of the 
plane flew on, descending rapidly, and as it did thousands of gallons of jet 
fuel spilled out of the wings and the center fuel tank between them. At 
8,000 feet, about 24 seconds after the initial blast, the fuel caught fire, 
engulfing the remainder of the jetliner into a giant fireball. 

The finding about the center fuel tank came as a surprise even to the 
investigators who think a bomb exploded on board. They had assumed in recent 
days that if a bomb exploded on board, it was located somewhere above the 
center fuel tank, instantly triggering an enormous explosion inside it. 

While investigators, speaking not for attribution, said they have concluded 
that the center fuel tank did not explode, publicly they have refused to say 

"There's a lot of damage in that area and there's a lot of smoke and burn, 
and I would not want to say there's an explosion at this point," Mr. Francis 
said yesterday. 

The center fuel tank had been filled in Athens for a trip to Kennedy earlier 
in the day on July 17. Nearly all of the fuel was used on that trip. 

GRAPHIC: Diagram: Wrechage from the areas shown in black was found in the 
debris field closest to Kennedy Airport, indicating those areas were among 
the first pieces to fall off the plane and may have been near the initial 

But because some part of the center fuel tank were found with little or no 
significant damage, investigators now believe that the tank was not the 
origin of the explosion that downed Flight 800. (Source: National 
Trasportation Safety Board; Boeing Co.) 

LOAD-DATE: August 15, 1996 

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