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Truck Part May Hold Clue to Bomb Suspects

Saudi Arabia: Investigators find crankshaft in debris. Victims mourned in emotional service at Dhahran base.

June 29, 1996|JOHN DANISZEWSKI and PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia — Investigators on Friday found the blackened crankshaft of the truck that exploded outside a U.S. military compound this week, providing a potentially vital clue on a day that the base bade farewell to its dead with expressions of sorrow and rage.

Three days after the blast that killed 19 Americans, the men and women of the U.S. Air Force's 4404th Composite Air Wing tried to return to their normal routines while coming to terms with the emotional trauma inflicted by the worst terrorist attack against a U.S. military post since 1983.

The base's primary mission of monitoring Iraq's military resumed for the first time since the explosion. Wives of expatriate oil company executives handed out cookies and brownies to comfort survivors. Psychologists and chaplains provided counseling to airmen who felt guilty that they survived, and doctors tended to the last of the injured awaiting evacuation to hospitals in Europe.

Two phony bomb threats, however, hindered the recovery for many by summoning forth again the nightmare of Tuesday night's violence.

A team of FBI and Saudi investigators continued their search for evidence pointing to the identity of the bombers by sifting meticulously through debris. Under the searing heat of the day and by floodlight after dark, they laid out twisted steel fragments and other recovered machine parts in long ribbons on the ground as they attempted to assess the force of the explosion.

Defense Secretary William J. Perry, en route to Dhahran, told reporters that the team had found evidence, but no proof, of an organizational tie between the attack and a bombing in November that killed seven people, including five U.S. servicemen.

The recovery of the crankshaft, announced by the Saudi police and later confirmed by the U.S. military, could prove to be a crucial piece of evidence, said one U.S. official, because it may carry vehicle identification numbers. Those identifiers helped authorities find suspects in both the 1993 World Trade Center blast and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City last year.

Vehicle identification numbers have been stamped on major auto parts for at least a decade in the United States. They enable authorities to go to manufacturers to trace the make and model, the dealership that initially sold the vehicle, and the succession of owners.

Since these ID numbers are recorded with government motor vehicle agencies, "in the United States, at least, you'd be able to track all that information very quickly," said Brian Jenkins, a security specialist at Kroll Associates in Santa Monica.

A former FBI official familiar with tracing vehicles said the ID numbers are more likely to be found on a car's differential, engine block or frame. The crankshaft, however, could help investigators establish the type, make and perhaps year of the vehicle, he said.

Forensic experts also hope to find pieces of the bomb's timing device or fuse because they could provide a telltale signature of the terrorist group, the U.S. official said.

Investigators will submit pieces of evidence--including the most minute ones--to chemical analysis, first in the field and later in Washington.

Air Force police who had been posted on the roof of the destroyed building said they were questioned by the FBI about the bombers and their getaway vehicle, a mid-1980s white Chevrolet Caprice sedan.

"The truck backed up to the fence, then two men driving the truck got into a passenger vehicle and proceeded to drive off," said Sgt. Alfredo Guerrero of Modesto, Calif., who was singled out as a hero for his role in evacuating his colleagues, then helping the injured get medical attention. "They got so close, you could hear the truck going into the hedges [outside the fence]. I figured there was something wrong with that."

As the security police ran to evacuate the building, they were overwhelmed with dread.

"I saw my life flash before my eyes, and all I could think was just, 'I need to get out of here,' " recalled Airman Chris Wagar, 20, of Graham, Wash. "But Sgt. Guerrero was there to remind me that we need to get other people out too."

At the air base, the mood remained grim, as expressed at a morning memorial service for the victims. Facing 19 flower arrangements--one for each victim--American, British and French airmen gathered in a corrugated iron passenger terminal converted into a makeshift chapel to sing hymns and recall fallen friends.

"We are angry beyond words," said the commander of the U.S. forces here, Brig. Gen. Terry J. Schwalier. The explosion had taken place on the final day of Schwalier's one-year assignment as commander of the base.

"Lord God . . . in your divine justice, bring retribution to those responsible for this violence," prayed Capt. Thomas Angelo, a military chaplain.

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