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New TWA Jet Debris May Be From Fuel Tank

September 25, 1996|SERGE F. KOVALESKI | WASHINGTON POST

SMITHTOWN, N.Y. — Divers searching for remaining wreckage from Trans World Airlines Flight 800 have recovered another large piece of debris, apparently from the Boeing 747's center fuel tank, where a massive explosion downed the plane on July 17, investigators said Tuesday.

With the amount of wreckage on the ocean floor becoming scarce, probers said they were hopeful that the 9-by-13-foot chunk of the aircraft would help them determine whether a bomb, missile or mechanical malfunction caused the tank to explode and the jet to plunge into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island.

"We are looking for something that tells us why the center fuel tank exploded," said Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. He added: "We are getting to the point where the return from the bottom of the ocean is diminishing."

Officials said late Tuesday that the sizable piece of wreckage, along with five or six nets full of smaller fragments from the jumbo jet, were en route from Navy vessels to a hangar in Calverton, N.Y. Once there, the debris will be analyzed and added to a mock-up of the plane. Several more fuel probes have also been recovered, but it has yet to be determined which tanks they came from.

Salvage workers have so far recovered about 80% of the Paris-bound plane, and 60% to 65% of the center fuel tank has been retrieved.

Francis said that Navy divers scouring about 120 feet under water are coming across little more than shards of the plane. He said that rather than standing on the ocean floor, the divers are now working on their hands and knees, placing pieces of the plane in small bags.

Some law enforcement authorities said they are now taking a closer look at whether a missile tore through the plane without exploding and then kept flying for a distance. This, they say, could explain the lack of conclusive bomb residue on wreckage. In the meantime, the focus of the investigation has shifted toward the possibility of a catastrophic mechanical malfunction.

The crash killed all 230 people on board. The Suffolk County medical examiner issued death certificates Tuesday for the 17 passengers and one crew member whose bodies have yet to be recovered or identified, Newsday reported.

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