|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
BYLINE: By DON VAN NATTA Jr.
Investigators examining the wreckage of Trans World Airlines Flight
concluded that the center fuel tank caught fire as many as 24 seconds
the initial blast that split apart the plane, a finding that deals
blow to the already remote possibility that a mechanical accident caused
crash, officials said yesterday.
For weeks investigators have said that if a mechanical malfunction --
than a bomb or a missile -- brought down the Boeing 747, an explosion
center fuel tank, situated between the wings, would most likely have
responsible. But in recent days, investigators have concluded that
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
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
brought down the plane off Long Island, shortly after it left Kennedy
International Airport for Paris on July 17. All 230 people on board
Despite the new finding, National Transportation Safety Board officials
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
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
Francis, vice chairman of the safety board.
Mr. Francis was noncommittal about whether there was tangible evidence
an explosion ripped through the center fuel tank. "I would not want
there was an explosion in the center fuel tank," he said.
Another of the senior investigators said last night that they would
officially rule out a mechanical malfunction until they were ready
public a conclusive determination that a bomb or rocket downed the
But in 10 field tests at Calverton, L.I., chemists have detected residue
consistent with an explosive, though in each case, subsequent tests
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
The center fuel tank held about 50 gallons of jet fuel at the time of
crash. Almost every possible mechanical accident that investigators
envisioned has involved a quick series of malfunctions, perhaps including
spark from an adjacent electrical junction, that set off an explosion
As the investigators theorized, a fuel tank explosion would have knocked
the plane's electrical system, disabling the flight data recorder and
separating the forward area of the plane from the rest. Nothing else
board is thought to have had the ability to do all that.
During the last two days, however, investigators discovered that some
of the fuel tank were charred or covered with soot from a fire, while
pieces showed little or no significant damage, suggesting that the
not explode. One official said recovered parts of the fuel tank are
"It is clear that whatever set off the tank did not severely damage
tank," said one official, who insisted on anonymity. "Something else,
likely later, blew up the tank."
Besides the condition of the fuel tank's wreckage, investigators say
the pattern of the debris they have recovered off the ocean floor has
persuaded them that a mechanical malfunction is highly unlikely. The
of the plane that were blown off first have been recovered from the
field closest to Kennedy International Airport.
Investigators displayed a chart yesterday that showed another piece
evidence suggesting that the blast occurred where the front of the
meet the fuselage. A narrow stripe of the fuselage ahead of the wings
displayed in red, meaning that those pieces have been recovered from
area closest to Kennedy Airport and were the first to be blown off
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
drawn conclusions about how the first explosion caused the plane to
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
plane flew on, descending rapidly, and as it did thousands of gallons
fuel spilled out of the wings and the center fuel tank between them.
8,000 feet, about 24 seconds after the initial blast, the fuel caught
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
days that if a bomb exploded on board, it was located somewhere above
center fuel tank, instantly triggering an enormous explosion inside
While investigators, speaking not for attribution, said they have concluded
that the center fuel tank did not explode, publicly they have refused
"There's a lot of damage in that area and there's a lot of smoke and
and I would not want to say there's an explosion at this point," Mr.
The center fuel tank had been filled in Athens for a trip to Kennedy
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
debris field closest to Kennedy Airport, indicating those areas were
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
significant damage, investigators now believe that the tank was not
origin of the explosion that downed Flight 800. (Source: National
Trasportation Safety Board; Boeing Co.)
LOAD-DATE: August 15, 1996
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