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FLIGHT 800: HORROR IN THE SKY

FBI Says It's Close to Finding Key Clues in TWA Disaster

July 29, 1996|ERIC MALNIC and RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

EAST MORICHES, N.Y. — A top FBI official predicted Sunday that the crucial evidence needed to determine why TWA Flight 800 crashed into the sea after an explosion will be found by Tuesday.

"I think within the next 48 hours we'll get the pieces [of the Boeing 747] we need," said James Kallstrom, the FBI assistant director who is spearheading the criminal investigation into the July 17 tragedy that killed 230 people.

"I'm optimistic," he said. "I hope the first things we bring up give us the clues. But it may be the last thing we bring up. We know what we're looking for."

He said investigators could know very soon what caused the explosion or it could take "many, many days" to pinpoint.

Investigators are known to be focusing on the theory that the jumbo jet was torn apart by a bomb, but they continue to insist that they lack the physical evidence to support that theory.

A second Navy salvage ship capable of lifting heavy pieces of wreckage is to begin operating over the crash site nine miles off Long Island by Tuesday morning. The USS Grapple, along with the USS Grasp, will be used to pull up several large chunks of fuselage, including a piece 50 feet long that was discovered Sunday.

In Washington, Deputy Atty. Gen. Jamie S. Gorelick downplayed the theory that the plane was struck by a missile rather than torn apart by a bomb placed aboard the aircraft.

Asked specifically whether a missile hit the plane, she answered: "Would I say it's likely? I would not."

Kallstrom refused to say whether he shared her opinion. "We still have all the theories up on the board because we still have reason to have them up there," he said.

The discovery of additional wreckage over the weekend has amended investigators' theories about what happened after the Boeing 747 jumbo jet was wracked by the blast.

Radar data had suggested that the jetliner had stayed largely intact after the explosion, arcing downward for about 24 seconds before being torn apart in a giant fireball of burning fuel that scattered wreckage over a debris field about 3,000 yards long and 1,000 yards wide.

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Most of that wreckage was from the center and rear of the plane--the tourist-class passenger compartment and the tail. Only a few pieces were found from the front of the jetliner.

The weekend discovery of major pieces of wreckage in a second debris field to the right of the flight path indicated by the radar recordings, however, changed the assessment.

National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Robert Francis said the wreckage found in the second field includes some major fragments of the forward part of the fuselage, "the area that has first-class and business-class seats. . . . Whether that includes the cockpit, we can't tell."

The discovery of this wreckage a mile and a half to the right of the final flight path, investigators said, suggests that the jetliner broke in two immediately after the explosion, rather than in a subsequent fireball 24 to 36 seconds later.

Investigators said the sequence of the breakup is significant because it could provide important clues about where a bomb might have exploded on the plane.

They noted that the pattern of debris found on the ocean floor is similar in many respects to the way the wreckage from Pan American Airways Flight 103 was strewn over Lockerbie, Scotland. In that case, FBI investigators determined that a small bomb had been placed in the plane's forward cargo hold.

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Francis said radar may have failed to pick up separate images as the TWA jetliner broke up because one part could have shielded the other from the radar beams.

Kallstrom said some pieces of evidence from the TWA wreckage have been analyzed "with results" in the FBI's laboratory in Washington. He declined to say what kind of wreckage was analyzed or what the results were.

As of Sunday, 153 bodies had been recovered, 147 of them positively identified.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Search for the Blast Point

Officials investigating the crash of TWA Flight 800 are looking closely at the Boeing 747's front cargo section, suspecting that an explosion in that hold may have broken the aircraft into two pieces.

Source: Jane's All the World's Aircraft

More on the Web

* You'll find more on the crash of TWA Flight 800 on The Times' World Wide Web site: Stories, photos and links to Web sites of the investigating agencies, TWA and Newsday, the Long Island newspaper. You can also send a message to the community of Montoursville, Pa., which lost teachers and students in the crash. Go to: http://www.latimes.com/twacrash

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