|Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
July 31, 1996, Wednesday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Page 1; Column 6; Metropolitan Desk
LENGTH: 1244 words
HEADLINE: FATE OF FLIGHT 800: THE OVERVIEW;
BYLINE: By MATTHEW L. WALD
DATELINE: SMITHTOWN, L.I., July 30
The investigators believe that the landing gear was blown off the plane by a bomb blast. But several senior law enforcement officials said tonight that the finding still fell short of the definitive evidence that they said they needed before they could declare the crash the result of a criminal act. The landing gear would have been retracted into its housing inside the fuselage long before the plane exploded, and the hydraulic mechanism that retracts it was found to have "serious concussive damage," the result of a violent blow or impact, a Federal investigator said. "By the way it had been smashed, the bomb experts thought it had been very close to the source of the explosion."
The front cargo hold carrying passengers' baggage was just behind the landing gear. The first-class seating area was above. Investigators said this evening that they believe a bomb might have been in a passenger's bag -- or perhaps in a food cart or a bathroom in the cabin above.
For the last several days, law enforcement officials investigating the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 have been saying privately that they believed the plane was destroyed by a bomb, but they have been waiting to find a piece of clear physical evidence to support their theory. The latest discovery caused a stir among the divers, Navy and Coast Guard technicians and Federal agents who recovered the landing gear on Saturday.
Samples of apparent residue found on the landing gear have been sent to the F.B.I. lab in Washington to find if they hold chemical traces of an explosive. Thus far, they have not found such conclusive chemical evidence.
One investigator who viewed the hydraulic unit described the damage as "more like a crack than a tear."
"The vast majority of the wreckage has been these torn, mangled pieces of thin metal, from the fuselage," he added. "This was a huge piece of thick steel, and it had been blasted is the only way to describe it.
"For more than a week," he said, "everyone had been sifting through this wreckage, desperately searching for some sign of the explosion, but not really knowing exactly what we were looking for. Then when you see it, the kind of visible damage that had been done, you just know."
Investigators also said today that a cargo door, presumably the front one, had been found significantly closer to Kennedy International Airport than almost all of the other parts located so far, tending to support the theory that a bomb blew up in the forward cargo hold, blowing off the door.
The plane, bound for Paris with 230 passengers and crew members, was, in essence, decapitated as it was climbing to about 13,700 feet, spreading wreckage over several miles. The main section of the plane, engines apparently still running, flew on and plummeted to about 8,500 feet. There, it exploded in a fireball that was visible for miles.
The senior Navy officer here, Rear Adm. Edward K. Kristensen, acknowledged today that the rush to recover human remains ahead of wreckage had slowed the search for evidence, perhaps causing investigators to lose chances to obtain information that could have been gleaned from the wreckage.
Today, the Suffolk County Medical Examiner, Dr. Charles V. Wetli, identified the body of a flight engineer who had been riding in the cockpit as an observer. But the divers who recovered the body had no idea whose body it was at the time they brought it to the surface.
"The ID isn't done until later in the process," he said. But by then, the divers were unable to recall where the body had been when they retrieved it. That could be important because searchers do not believe that they have found the cockpit yet, and that is probably where the flight engineer was sitting.
Divers are continuing to labor in debris fields that two of them today described as being like underwater junkyards. Little natural light penetrates to the bottom, so their visibility is limited to a few feet. Technicians on ships on the surface, viewing the scene through cameras in the divers' helmets that cannot zoom in or out, have an even murkier picture.
The searchers have now recovered 171 bodies, and 165 have been positively identified. Of those, 157 have been returned to next of kin. The number of families at the Ramada Plaza Hotel near Kennedy, once more than 175, is now fewer than 50.
Investigators were also cheered today by the arrival of a second Navy salvage tugboat, the Grapple, which went immediately into the complicated business of mooring itself without further damaging the wreckage below while also setting itself up to maneuver gradually over the debris field that holds much of the forward part of the plane. It was expected to begin lowering divers into the water at about midnight.
Also arriving today was a British official who helped investigate the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. That plane was brought down by a bomb, and investigators have found several similarities between that crash and this one.
Robert T. Francis, the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, continued to stress today that recovering human remains would take precedence whenever remains were found. But he added that some of the equipment at the scene was useful only for hoisting up debris. Divers rigged some of the debris for hoisting previously and marked it with buoys. The total of bodies recovered rose by 10 today, but Mr. Francis cautioned that the pace might slow. He has said he does not expect that all the bodies will be recovered.
Admiral Kristensen said the third of the four engines had been found, in pieces. Engine break-up in flight can make a plane crash, but the admiral said the early assessment was that this engine had been damaged when it hit the water.
A formal declaration that the plane was brought down by a bomb would mark only a symbolic milepost for the safety board, which will continue work here for weeks helping to recover parts, and for the F.B.I., which already has a full-scale criminal investigation under way.
The F.B.I., however, has been holding off completing some witness interviews until it was clear that the crash was a crime.
Within the investigative team, two different schools of thought have
emerged about the cause of the crash. While most investigators believe
a bomb brought down the airline, others still insist that there is not
enough hard evidence to declare it a bombing. Besides, they say, the plane
could have been hit by a missile or rocket, and a few still insist that
mechanical failure is an outside possibility. The senior officials in charge
have decided that they are not going to make the announcement of the cause
until everyone within the investigation agrees on it and at least one critical
At the end of nearly two weeks of work, the recovery teams have little
of the plane in hand, but they do have a small flotilla of ships and boats
at work, and a small army of divers, well over 100. This probably would
not change if officials announced that they had evidence of a bomb because
that would merely answer the what, not the how, and especially not the
who of the incident.
GRAPHIC: Photo: Seats from Trans World Airlines Flight 800 being unloaded yesterday at the Shinnecock Coast Guard station in Hampton Bays, L.I. (Vic DeLucia/The New York Times)(pg. B5)
Diagram: "Evidence in the Wreckage"
Yesterday, searchers found what they think is the front left cargo door southwest of the main debris field, nearer to the site of the crash.
Heavy damage suggestive of explosion found in hydraulic wheel retractor (Source: The Boeing Company, "Commercial Aircraft" by William Greene and Gordon Swanborough)(pg. B5)
LOAD-DATE: July 31, 1996
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