FBI experts steer clear of bomb theory

TWA crash: Divers are still looking for the black boxes, while the cause of the explosion which killed 230 remains a mystery
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The Independent Online

New York

Confusion yesterday still surrounded the cause of the explosion which tore apart an aircraft off the coast of New York, killing 230 people. Investigators were either unable or unwilling to offer firm guidance on whether mechanical failure or sabotage had been responsible.

As seaborne salvage efforts were hampered by deteriorating weather, navy divers were preparing to explore the sandy seabed, searching for further wreckage and, more importantly, for the aircraft's two "black box" flight recorders.

As much as four tons of debris from the doomed jet has been hauled from the ocean at the crash site, about nine miles off the southern shore of Long Island, New York. The wreckage should provide investigators with their first clues as to the cause of the disaster.

Federal officials refused to be drawn into public speculation about the cause. Despite the involvement of the FBI, officials said they were still treating the incident as an accident. "We are taking every prudent step to investigate this," Jim Kallstrom of the FBI's New York office said. "We are not ready to say what this is at this point."

Speaking to reporters later yesterday, Mr Kallstrom reiterated: "You have a lot of things that look like an accident and you have a lot of things that look like terrorism. There will be time when we reach critical mass and it won't be too long". He did not confirm widespread reports that the FBI was poised to take over the investigation.

The overwhelming weight of media and other public commentary was based on the premise that there had beensome kind of terrorist attack against the aircraft. Possibilities included either the detonation of a bomb, perhaps placed on board before the aircraft's departure from John F Kennedy Airport, bound for Paris, or even a missile strike.

The rumours of sabotage were reinforced by experts who voiced serious doubt that so violent a disaster could have had mechanical origins.

"This plane would not break up in flight," ventured Paul Caysz, a former aviation engineer who teaches at St Louis University. "The 747 can lose pieces and still fly. It had to be something external".

It remained a fact, however, that the aircraft was one of the earliest models of the 747 built by Boeing and had been in service, continuously with TWA, for 25 years. Maintenance records showed that the aircraft, with the tail number N93119, had displayed signs of metal fatigue, cracks and corrosion, as would be expected from one of such a vintage.

An unexplained blip on traffic-control radar pictures triggered an urgent investigation by the Pentagon into whether a missile may have been fired at the airliner as it climbed over the ocean. While the possibility had not been eliminated yesterday, sources were suggesting that the theory was looking less plausible, in part because the aircraft had reached almost 14,000 feet, an altitude at which a downing by a missile would be difficult.

Officials were voicing similar doubts about any link between the disaster and a warning letter faxed just before the crash by an Islamic group to the Arabic al-Hayat newspaper published in London. The group, the Movement for Islamic Change, claimed responsibility for an attack against a US- run military training centre in Saudi Arabia last November.

The letter spoke of a "very heavy response to the threats of the stupid American President ... everyone will be surprised at the size of the response". US officials noted that similar threats emanated from the Middle East almost daily and the latest made no specific threat to aircraft.

Strong storms in the New York area, whipping up choppy seas, were expected to slow down the salvage effort today. Among those studying the wreckage already retrieved were forensic scientists who were searching for any signs of residue that may point to an incendiary explosion. The manner in which the aircraft was ripped apart will be checked carefully in the attempt to determine whether the explosion was caused by a bomb.

How much information will be revealed by the flight recorders was uncertain. Some experts suggested a bomb detonation may have left some kind of brief sound on tapes before complete electrical failure.

As counselling of the bereaved and the friends of those who perished continued, meanwhile, several families from Paris were due to arrive in New York last night on board a TWA flight.

More than 100 bodies had been retrieved from the ocean, some intact, others in parts.

A state coroner noted that initial post-mortem examinations had shown that some of the casualties had died by drowning. The coroner added, however, that they were - in all likelihood - already unconscious before the aircraft's impact on the water.