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FLIGHT 800: TRAGEDY'S AFTERMATH

Frustration Grows in Crash Recovery

Disaster: Family members--as well as officials--are upset that the retrieval of bodies is taking so long. Video camera malfunction hampers the search for wreckage.

July 22, 1996|RICHARD A. SERRANO and ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

EAST MORICHES, N.Y. — As relatives of the 230 people aboard TWA Flight 800 grew increasingly frustrated and angry at delays in retrieving the victims' bodies, officials in charge of the recovery operation acknowledged Sunday that they had little to show for their fourth full day at sea.

Although one additional body was pulled from the ocean--the first since Thursday--an important underwater video camera malfunctioned, hampering workers' ability to look more closely at what they believed was a trail of wreckage and a large piece of the airplane on the ocean floor. And once again there was no sign of the flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders--the so-called black boxes that might provide important clues to the cause of the crash.

The 500 Coast Guard, Navy and law enforcement personnel conducting the round-the-clock search also were frustrated, despite finding the breeze and seas calmer than in days just after the crash. White caps still made it difficult for aerial spotters to differentiate wave crests from floating debris, and tidal drift hampered efforts to keep track of the airplane insulation and clothing that had been spotted earlier.

Investigators said they had succeeded in obtaining detailed information about passengers on Flight 800, the jetliner's trip to John F. Kennedy International Airport from Athens, and cargo handlers and maintenance workers who had access to the plane.

"We continue to move the ball, certainly in terms of mounting information," said James Kallstrom, an assistant FBI director. He declined to elaborate.

But, frustration and fatigue crossing his face, Kallstrom conceded: "We did not move the ball in terms of getting the wreckage."

As investigators worked to determine whether the crash of the Paris-bound Boeing 747 into the Atlantic Ocean nine miles off Long Island's south shore was the result of a monstrous mechanical or human failure or a criminal act, such as the planting of a bomb or the firing of a missile, there were these developments:

* Vice President Al Gore held out the hope that what may be a large piece of fuselage on the ocean floor can be raised within two days. Investigators have focused their attention on what they described as a large trail of material, which they presume is wreckage, detected on the ocean floor.

* Suffolk County, N.Y., Medical Examiner Charles Wetli said the autopsies he has performed so far have provided no evidence of a bombing. But officials noted that the lack of evidence might simply mean that those bodies recovered so far were too far away from a blast for it to have left signs. Completing the work is "an arduous, tedious task," he said, because "we are dealing with bodies that have been very seriously mutilated."

* Memorial services for the victims were held from Long Island to Los Angeles, including in Montoursville, Pa., a small town from which 21 people, including 16 students, had departed for a high school French club visit to France, via TWA Flight 800.

Kallstrom said searchers at sea continued to work against time in their efforts.

"We're racing against an emotional clock, for the poor victims," he said.

Members of the victims' families, currently gathered in a Ramada Inn near Kennedy airport, are being offered a trip today to Long Island's south shore. They may visit the Coast Guard station from which the work of six cutters and smaller boats is being coordinated. Or, they may be invited to fly over the crash site by helicopter.

In addition, a delegation was going to be escorted to the medical examiner's office, to help them understand the scope of the operation there.

The Search

In their search for wreckage, military personnel deployed high-technology sonar devices, which send signals to the ocean floor to map the surface and any objects on it. They said they used the underwater video camera for a while before realizing it was not working properly.

"The more we know about what is underneath the water by using the equipment we have, the more that can be done when we do put divers in the water," Navy Lt. Cmdr. Gordon Hume said. But without specific targets to explore, Navy divers remained ashore Sunday, officials said.

Robert Francis, the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said he hoped divers would be sent into the water today "and start to hitch up and pull up wreckage," once sunken pieces of the airplane are located.

"Substantial pieces of the fuselage [are] what's going to tell us what happened," he said.

With only 1% of the airliner recovered, he said, "we do not have the parts of the aircraft where we would expect to find telltale evidence." Such parts include the cargo hold, engines and pieces of the plane near the engine, he said.

The aircraft was engulfed in flames as it fell from 13,700 feet half an hour after its departure from Kennedy airport. But the fireball was presumably the 165,000 pounds of jet fuel the plane was estimated to be carrying and not necessarily the flames of an explosive device.

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