Accident theory gains ground in TWA crash probe Fuel-tank blast may hold key to TWA disaster crash probe disaster

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The Independent Online
Experts investigating the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island are diverting their attention away from theories that sabotage might have been responsible and are concentrating again on the possibility of mechanical failure.

The shift in focus, confirmed anonymously this week by officials close to the inquiry, once more puts the aircraft's manufacturer, Boeing, under the spotlight. And it is certain to rekindle concerns that hundreds of jumbo jets, carrying thousands of passengers daily, may not be safe.

More than two months after the tragedy, which claimed the lives of 230 people, the formal line remains the same - that three possible scenarios are under parallel and equal scrutiny: the plane was downed by a bomb, a missile struck it (few give credence to this theory), or something mechanical went badly wrong.

No new evidence has been recovered pointing to mechanical failure. The theory has returned to the fore, however, because while officials - particularly agents of the FBI - have privately favoured the bomb theory, convincing proof of a blast has yet to be discovered. "We are getting absolutely nothing as it relates to a bomb," one source told the Washington Post. "Things seem to be pointing toward mechanical malfunction and that is where investigators are concentrating now".

A rift appears to have opened between the two halves of the investigating team.

While the FBI has made little secret of its belief that the plane was downed by a criminal act, officials of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have not been convinced by the arguments.

An apparent breakthrough over proving the bomb theory several weeks ago - the discovery of traces of explosive material inside the fuselage near the right wing - is now the object of scepticism.

Officials note that such residues could have arrived in the plane months or years before the crash, for instance in transporting military personnel during the 1991 Gulf war.

And divers scouring the ocean floor for remaining wreckage have not turned up any parts showing the tell-tale signs of an incendiary explosion, such as metal pitted or dramatically misshapen by a blast.

Critical to the inquiry now is the role that may have been played by the central fuel tank of the airliner. The tank, with a capacity of 12,800 gallons, had only 50 to 100 gallons in it at the time of the plane's take- off. NTSB officials suspect that an electrical spark may have ignited fuel vapours in the tank, causing it to erupt.

Boeing has conducted its own simulations and said that an ignition in the tank could not have produced a blast strong enough to cripple the plane as instantaneously as suggested by data from the voice recorders. But the NTSB now intends carrying out its own experiments to test this.

While the prospect grows that the cause of the accident may never be conclusively determined, investigators are under heavy pressure to make headway. There are big political stakes if sabotage is proved and high financial stakes for TWA, the air industry as a whole and the insurance industry if mechanical malfunction is found to be the cause.