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FLIGHT 800: TRAGEDY'S AFTERMATH

TWA Inquiry Brings Together 2 Men of Complementary Skills

Crash: Success of probe hinges on the chemistry and cooperation between the FBI's James Kallstrom and Robert Francis of the NTSB.

July 23, 1996|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EAST MORICHES, N.Y. — They have been thrown together by fate: A tough but caring former Marine captain with a temper, and a safety investigator wise in the ways of Capitol Hill who holds a commercial pilot's license.

The pairing of James K. Kallstrom, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's New York office, and Robert T. Francis II, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, stands at the very center of the scrutiny of the crash of TWA Flight 800.

Their personal chemistry and ability to work together will be crucial to the success of the probe.

Although their backgrounds differ, the two government officials have complementary skills.

Kallstrom, 53, is an expert on international terrorism and the FBI's public point man on sensitive issues of electronic surveillance.

Francis, 58, who served with the Federal Aviation Administration for 18 years, has searched for the causes of diverse disasters and was on the U.S. team that investigated the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that took 207 lives.

The TWA crash is a personal tragedy for Kallstrom. A close friend of 25 years was a member of the flight crew.

When a delegation of anguished relatives flew to the Coast Guard station at East Moriches for a briefing, where the search for wreckage is centered, a couple whose child perished aboard the plane broke down and sobbed. Kallstrom hugged the mother and father, trying to comfort them.

A few minutes later, he stood in the sandy scrub near the red-roofed Coast Guard facility with Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) at his side.

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"Jim Kallstrom is one of the great professionals," the senator told reporters. "We will have the answers."

"The bottom line, is we want the wreckage off the floor of the ocean," Kallstrom said, displaying a flash of impatience. "I want it because I want the forensics so I can proceed with the investigation. The families want it because they want the bodies. They want closure on that issue.

"So I can tell you, I'm beating up everybody out there too that has a responsibility to find the evidence," he said. "I am harassing the hell out of them in a different way [than] the families are, but I want it the same way.

" . . . We're going to get that stuff off the floor as fast as it is humanly possible."

Francis, who headed the NTSB team that investigated the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades in May, shares the concern etched sharper by the families' grief.

Like Kallstrom, he is a meticulous investigator and realizes time pressures can lead to mistakes.

"When he ran the ValuJet probe, he was very relaxed and informal. But he is not drawn into speculation. He is very careful in his answers," said an observer who has followed his career at the NTSB.

In January 1995, President Clinton appointed Francis vice chairman of the five-member board responsible for determining the cause of major domestic civil transportation accidents. Before joining the NTSB, Francis had a long career with the Federal Aviation Administration, acting first as the agency's congressional liaison after a stint as an administrative assistant to Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.) and later as head of the agency's Atlanta and Paris offices.

Both Kallstrom and Francis are Massachusetts natives. As assistant FBI director in charge of the New York field office, Kallstrom heads the largest of the FBI's 56 offices, which has more than 1,000 agents who handle investigations ranging from organized crime and white-collar crime to counterintelligence.

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His choice in February 1995 by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who worked both as an FBI agent and as a federal prosecutor in New York, represents increasing emphasis within the agency on new technologies in the digital age, while not downplaying the importance of old-fashioned footwork.

Before assuming leadership of the New York office--one of the FBI's most sensitive in the media capital of the nation--Kallstrom, who has a master's degree in public administration, headed its technical and surveillance operations. His expertise and techniques helped play a key role in hundreds of cases, including the conviction of John Gotti, head of the Gambino crime family, terrorist arrests and other other high-profile investigations.

Agents who work with Kallstrom say he is a hands-on manager. He has been shuttling daily by helicopter from the field office's command center in Manhattan's Federal Plaza to Long Island, where eyewitnesses are being interviewed and the plane's wreckage is being slowly assembled.

"I've got hundreds of agents who are out there working their butts off," Kallstrom said.

"He really gets down in the trenches with the agents," said a colleague in the New York office.

When young new agents arrive in the office, Kallstrom quickly meets with them and explains that interesting and diverse cases can offset the difficulties of working and living in the New York area. Then he tells them what he expects--"the best work in the bureau."

Times staff writers Eric Malnic, Ronald J. Ostrow and Richard A. Serrano contributed to this story.

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