ATHENS — An apparent terrorist bomb exploded aboard a Trans World Airlines jetliner 15,000 feet over Greece on Wednesday, blowing out four passengers to their deaths, but the pilot safely landed the crippled plane here just minutes later.
The unidentified explosive device, which TWA officials said went off in the passenger cabin at about floor level, tore a 10-foot-square hole in the fuselage in front of a wing as the Boeing 727, with 121 people aboard, was preparing to land at Athens' Hellenikon International Airport at the end of a flight from Rome.
Nine passengers were injured, but only three of those remained hospitalized today.
A Greek government spokesman called the bombing "a barbarous terrorist action."
All the dead apparently were American citizens. According to Greek officials, the airline and relatives, the fatalities were Alberto Ospina, a Colombian-born American from Stratford, Conn., and three members of a Greek-American family-- Dimitra Stylian, 52; her daughter, Maria Klug, 25, and her 3-month-old grandchild, all from Annapolis, Md.
In Beirut, a little-known Palestinian guerrilla group called the Arab Revolutionary Cells claimed responsibility for the bombing.
An anonymous telephone caller, speaking in Palestinian-accented Arabic, said the Ezzedine Kassam Unit of the Arab Revolutionary Cells planted the bomb aboard Flight 840 in retaliation for last week's U.S. military confrontation with Libya in the Gulf of Sidra.
But in Tripoli, Libya, Col. Moammar Kadafi quickly distanced himself from the bombing, saying, "This is an act of terrorism against a civilian target, and I am totally against this," CBS Television reported.
Greek police said three bodies were found on an unused Greek air force landing strip outside Argos, 120 miles southwest of Athens, and the fourth was in the sea nearby.
An official at Athens airport said a shepherd near the village of Statheika, two miles northwest of Argos, saw bodies and at least one of the plane's seats falling and directed rescue workers to the site.
The official said the explosion occurred on the starboard side of the aircraft as the pilot, Capt. Richard D. Peterson of Sarasota, Fla., was descending for his final approach to Athens.
People 'Just Disappear'
"The people in Row 14 saw some people sitting in front of them just disappear," the airport official said.
Sarah Tittle, 24, of New York, who was near the ill-fated passengers when the explosion occurred, said, "I was just sitting there when a piece of flesh landed in my lap."
Yiannis Kapsis, a Greek undersecretary for foreign affairs, said, "The blast was caused by an explosive device in a piece of luggage aboard the plane."
Italian Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini said, "The shadow of terror is spreading over the Mediterranean."
Asked if the bomb could have been planted aboard the plane in Rome before it left for Athens, Spadolini said: "That is one of the theories."
In Washington, a State Department spokesman would say little about the incident. "Preliminary information now indicates that the explosion was caused by some type of a bomb," department spokesman Pete Martinez said. "We cannot confirm any additional details at this time. The investigation is continuing. We have seen the press report which said a little known group called the Arab Revolutionary Cells claimed responsibility. We are looking into it."
Flight 840 originated on a Boeing 747 in Los Angeles on Tuesday morning and stopped in New York before proceeding to Rome, a TWA agent said. Retaining the same number, the flight changed to a Boeing 727 in Rome for the next legs to Athens and Cairo.
Most of the passengers--103--began the flight in the United States. Transferring to the smaller plane in Rome, they were joined there by 11 more, the airline said. The 727 had a crew of seven.
At a news conference in New York, Richard D. Pearson, president and chief operating officer of TWA, said Capt. Peterson told him there had been a "jarring" explosion at 15,000 feet, about 15 minutes short of Athens.
The explosion occurred in Row 10 near the floor level, Pearson said, and blew a hole in the fuselage about 10 feet square. The blast was apparently at Seat 10F, which on a 727 is at a window just forward of the starboard wing.
Passengers Used Masks
Oxygen masks dropped from overhead compartments, and passenger used them to facilitate breathing as debris from the explosion filled the cabin, he said.
Three airline personnel including a captain--who were "dead-heading," or between flight assignments--were aboard the plane. They assisted the crew in aiding injured passengers.
After the explosion, Peterson had to increase power to overcome additional wind drag, Pearson said, but he quoted the pilot as saying the emergency landing at Athens was "otherwise uneventful."