Jet crash inquiry faces long haul

TWA disaster: Bomb theory grows as search for evidence goes on

John Carlin
Sunday 21 July 1996 23:02

The task of solving the mystery of TWA Flight 800, which crashed off the coast of Long Island, New York, last week killing 230 people, will present a big challenge. American investigators have yet to explain why, in September 1994, a Boeing 737 plunged to earth over Pittsburgh killing all 132 people aboard - so it may take some time before the reasons for this disaster come to light.

On Wednesday, the explosion of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet over the Atlantic Ocean scattered wreckage over an area that may turn out to encompass 500 square miles and depths of between 100 and 200 feet.

To complicate matters further, the weather has been variable - at times foggy, at times rainy - and the seas have been choppy to rough. Diving for wreckage has so far been impossible. Extraordinarily difficult preliminary salvage work will have to be completed before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation will be able to examine the evidence. Evidence which, if they are skilful and fortunate, too, may provide them with sufficient clues to be able to announce the probable cause of the disaster.

By yesterday, despite a massive deployment of resources, 130 bodies remained unaccounted for, and of the 100 bodies recovered, only 23 had been positively identified. Only 1 per cent of the aircraft itself had been recovered.

The two black boxes containing the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, have not yet been located. The aircraft's fuselage, which, investigators hope, will contain valuable evidence and most of the missing bodies, may, however, have been located with navy sonar devices. "May" - as in every utterance involving the investigation so far - remains the operative word. "They have found a trail of material on the [ocean] bottom," said Robert Francis, the NTSB vice-chairman heading on-site investigations.

Despite the lack of evidence, investigators have made it plain in their public statements, and in their off-the-record asides to reporters, that they believe TWA 800 was downed by a bomb. "The chances that this was a mechanical failure are slim," said Jim Kallstrom, the director of the FBI joint anti-terrorist task force investigating the crash. "The least likely thing, minus the forensics - which we are waiting for - is mechanical. That is just common sense."

Why is it common sense? Clive Irving, a New York-based British author who has written a book about Boeing and the 747, articulates - with more inside knowledge than most - what has become conventional informed opinion.

"There is no previous example of a complete and instantaneous catastrophe involving a 747 that was not a bomb," Mr Irving said. "If it had been a structural failure the degree of disintegration would not have been so sudden, especially if you take into account the sheer size of the 747."

But the means employed by the presumptive "cowards", in Mr Kallstrom's words, to blow up the aircraft, remain at this stage an unfathomable mystery. The mystery, meanwhile, has opened the door for television pundits to engage in a riot of guesswork.

One version put forward has it that a bomb was smuggled aboard the aircraft inside a metal box containing transplant organs. A box of this type would not have been subjected to the same electronic scrutiny as, say, the average suitcase.

Another idea is that the aircraft was shot down by a land-to-air missile, fired either from the Long Island shore or from a small boat.

One alternative suggestion isthat a terrorist in Athens placed inside the jet a bomb that managed to escape detection all along the route - during the five-hour period up to TWA 800's arrival in New York, and prior to, and after, its departure on the fateful flight to Paris. Perhaps the most intriguing theory propounded so far by an expert - who was interviewed on Friday on Washington television's Channel Eight - was that the aircraft had been struck by a meteorite falling to earth.

In the frenzy of speculation, somehow it has almost been forgotten that the bereaved families of those who died in the disaster care little about what, or who, caused the crash. Much less do they wish to turn their attention to that other subject of keen interest to the news-bereft media at the moment - how to prevent future calamities.

The heart-rending priority of the families and friends now standing helplessly by, is to recover and identify the bodies of their loved ones - to begin their mourning and to give the dead decent burials.

But even that accepted consequence seems as though it will be some way off yet.

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