The information, gleaned from radar scanner records and from the pattern of debris scattered on the ocean floor, suggests that many of the passengers may not have died instantly, as at first imagined, but may have remained conscious for many seconds before the plane itself finally blew up.
Investigators have still not ruled out mechanical failure as the cause of the crash. But the indication of a blast on one side of the fuselage, reported by yesterday's Los Angeles Times, pointed strongly to the detonation of a large bomb placed inside the aircraft. As well as puncturing the aircraft's skin, the bomb may also have fractured a fuel tank.
The possibility of a missile strike has not been discounted. FBI officials continue to note consistent witness accounts describing an object ascending towards the aircraft just prior to the explosion. But James Kallstrom, the FBI agent in charge, stressed that investigators have "low confidence in all the reports that it might have been a missile".
If a missile was the culprit it would almost certainly have been a shoulder- launched rocket and possibly an American-made Stinger. The US has long feared that a number of Stingers clandestinely supplied to Afghan rebels during the 1980s may have since fallen into terrorist hands. The heat- seeking rockets would be likely to hit an engine rather than the plane's fuselage, however.
Hopes of further breakthroughs rested with attempts that were being made yesterday to raise the first large sections of the aircraft to the water's surface.Reuse content