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Elusive Evidence Stalls Jet Crash Probe

Investigation: Officials note that huge obstacles stand in way of recovery and analysis of clues. Some question whether truth will ever be known.

August 03, 1996|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EAST MORICHES, N.Y. — Submerged beneath 120 feet of water off the coast of Long Island, the wreckage of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 remains as elusive as the night the jet suddenly slipped off the radar screen.

Today, 2 1/2 weeks after the Boeing jumbo jet and its 230 passengers disappeared into the Atlantic, federal investigators find themselves in many ways still not demonstrably closer to determining the cause of the July 17 air disaster.

Lead authorities--from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Navy--in recent days have described their efforts interchangeably as in a "slow idle" or at a "standstill."

Indeed, some officials are now acknowledging that it is conceivable the truth about not only who--but what--knocked Flight 800 out of the sky may never be known.

On Friday, for the second day in a row, officials announced that no new bodies had been found, keeping the total at 184. But they did reveal that a large piece of the window section of the cockpit had been spotted by a remote-controlled underwater camera. Divers will go down to examine it before it is brought to the surface and towed to shore.

*

A twisted 40-foot section of the red-and-white fuselage with a row of windows was brought ashore on Friday. Other pieces of wreckage were mangled beyond recognition.

As some families of the victims come to terms with the reality that their loved ones may never be found, and as some federal agents privately worry that their crucial evidence may be forever buried under the sea, a series of new developments is bringing home the enormous obstacles facing the government as it tries to make sense of what happened.

For instance:

* James K. Kallstrom, the head FBI official overseeing the criminal end of the investigation, is conceding that much of their detective legwork cannot begin until bomb residue or other evidence is brought up from the ocean floor.

But with only a small portion of the plane's exterior retrieved so far, Kallstrom is a long way from beginning other phases of the investigation. Among the critical work, the FBI is waiting to start is interviews with families and friends of all the 230 passengers and crew to learn whether someone might have given them a package to carry on board or whether someone might have wanted one individual passenger killed.

"We have to understand that this is a terribly different incident than anything we've dealt with here in the United States. . . ," Kallstrom said. "This is a terribly, terribly difficult situation to deal with."

* Jack Ballas, special agent in charge of the New York office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, has assigned a large number of agents, chemists and explosives experts to the effort. He also has sent equipment here to help detect bomb residue, setting up a mini-lab at the water's edge.

But despite his efforts, some field tests that have found telltale signs of an explosive later have been proven wrong in more elaborate examinations in federal laboratories in Washington. And asked whether his experts have had much to analyze, he said: "Nah."

Nevertheless, Ballas tries to put a positive face on the investigation.

"A case like this obviously is going to get everyone's attention as soon as it can so we can get wherever it is we're supposed to get," he said. "And I guarantee you we'll have all the evidence that we need before we call it."

* Robert Francis, who as vice chairman of the NTSB is running the joint-agency investigation here, is responding with more and more caution to questions about where all of the salvage, recovery and research is leading. Each day, he reacts more slowly to the one fundamental question when he answers: "I am fully confident we will find what happened."

There have been a number of events that have slowed progress.

*

First and foremost, officials announced that the recovery of bodies was their top priority over finding wreckage. But as time wore on, authorities began to do both concurrently. That angered some family members, but officials said it was the only way to keep the operation moving.

And by Friday, Navy Adm. Ed Kristensen was able to report: "We're not finding new victims but we are finding pieces of wreckage."

At this slow rate, it could be weeks or months before most of the searching is complete. To that end, authorities have already begun cautioning family members not to expect that all of those lost will be brought home.

There have been other dashed efforts as well. When a large piece of fuselage was hooked by divers and then tugged for retrieval, it broke in half. And when rough, stormy weather moved in to the area this week, the recovery effort all but stopped.

Despite the setbacks, many officials have privately come to believe that a bomb was placed aboard the airliner, most likely in the lower-front cargo hold. They believe that the concussion tore the front part of the plane away from the main cabin.

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