Debris discovery suggests bomb blasted TWA plane into pieces

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The Independent Online
The discovery of the front section of the TWA airliner which fell from the sky 12 days ago is leading investigators to compare the catastrophe more closely to the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland in December 1988.

In a breakthrough, debris from the forward part of the aircraft, containing the first-class cabin, the staircase to the upper deck and the cockpit, were located in an area one-and-a-half miles south- west of the site of the largest amount of wreckage.

The distance between the different piles of wreckage from TWA 800, which exploded en route from New York to Paris, killing all 230 on board, suggests that the forward sections of the aircraft became detached after a violent incident and fell into the sea first. Radar records show that the rest of the aircraft flew on with its engines at full thrust for several seconds before erupting in a fireball.

Officials insisted yesterday that they still could not rule out some extraordinary mechanical mishap, such as the plane simply breaking apart from previously undetected metal fatigue. There have been several cases where sections of the skin of planes have peeled away in the middle of a flight.

"Any theory you want to think of is alive," Robert Francis, of the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB), said. Three possibilities continue to predominate, however: mechanical failure, an explosion caused by a bomb placed in the aircraft, and an explosion caused by a missile strike.

The discovery of the front end of the plane offers one especially plausible scenario: that a bomb was detonated in the forward cargo hold, which instantly detached the first-class and cockpit sections from the rest of the aeroplane.

This has encouraged investigators to look for parallels with Pan Am 103, which was downed by a bomb stowed in the cargo hold. One source close to the investigation said the mystery of TWA 800 "has a lot of similarities to Pan Am 103".

The electrical controls in a Boeing 747 are just forward of that cargo hold. If the blast was detonated there, it would help to explain why the tapes retrieved from the so-called "black boxes" last week ended abruptly with an unexplained loud noise and why thereafter there was no further data or communication from the pilots.

Experts in aviation security have noted in recent days that the scanning of freight and mail placed in the cargo holds of jetliners represents a particularly weak link in the safety chain. Responsibility for guaranteeing the contents of the cargo is typically left with the shippers in the United States, not with airlines or airport staff.

The possibility that a missile might have been fired at the aircraft has not been ruled out. Such a missile could have been guided by a heat- seeking or radar system and fired from the land or a boat out at sea. Jamie Gorelick, the Deputy Attorney-General, confirmed that the missile theory remained in play. "That is one of the theories we are pursuing. Would I say it is likely? I would not, but it is an open theory".

By yesterday, 150 bodies had been retrieved from the ocean and the hopes of finding more were diminishing fast.

Among those who yesterday expressed greater certainty that criminal sabotage lay behind the crash was Senator Alfonse D'Amato of New York.

"I think it is fairly well established that it was not mechanical failure," he said.

The first sign that mechanical causes have been ruled out as a cause of the disaster will be the transfer of the primary responsibility for the investigation from the safety board to the FBI.

In the meantime, the FBI is conducting a massive, world-wide search for any leads to the possible perpetrators of a terrorism conspiracy.