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Aftermath: Flight 800 Crash: THE SEARCH FOR SABOTAGE

10 minute read
Paul Gray

Ghastly though it was, the Atlanta explosion had the perverse virtue of being clear-cut terrorism: an obvious bomb, identifiable victims, even fingerprints to dust for. Those caught up in the tragedy of TWA 800, which fell into the sea killing all 230 aboard, lacked such certainties. Grieving relatives wanted to take home their deceased. The U.S. Government and much of the general public wanted to know whether one of America’s commercial airliners had been blown out of the sky by terrorists. These questions, during a grueling and sometimes chaotic week, seemed at times incompatible–urgencies with different priorities. Investigators looked for bodies and for signs of a monstrous crime. They found fewer of both than many had hoped, but perhaps more than could reasonably be expected, given the formidable obstacles to discoveries of any sort.

Again and again, some 100 divers returned to an underwater hell: the silty tract roughly twice the size of Rhode Island containing the human remains and the wreckage of TWA Flight 800, about 10 miles off the coast of Long Island, New York, and 120 ft. below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. At that depth, the water temperature dropped to 50 degrees, and pressure crunched face masks painfully against foreheads and chins. Visibility was limited to a few feet, but the visions were nightmarish. Scattered shards of the doomed airliner sprouted myriad electric wires and cords waving medusa-like in the undersea currents. Some of the bodies, when discovered, swayed gently to the same tidal rhythms.

The divers and the crews of the flotilla of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels patrolling the crash site–plus everyone else involved in the investigation–got a morale boost late last Wednesday night, almost exactly a week after TWA Flight 800 took its fiery plunge into the sea. Called away to the telephone just after finishing a chicken-piccata dinner at a Manhattan hotel, National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman Robert Francis returned a short while later with a brief smile and some promising news: the plane’s two black boxes had been recovered.

Amid surging hopes that the cause of the crash would soon be revealed, both boxes–the cockpit-voice and flight-data recorders–were flown immediately to the NTSB lab in Washington, where experts spent much of Thursday in preliminary analysis. The flight-data recorder, which automatically tracks a number of the plane’s navigational and mechanical processes, had been partly damaged by salt water, though officials believe much of the encoded information can eventually be salvaged.

But the cockpit-voice recorder quickly yielded only a tantalizing enigma: what Francis called a “fraction-of-a-second sound” 111/2 minutes into the flight, followed by silence. This tiny glitch of noise reinforced the notion–privately held by many government officials almost from the beginning–that Flight 800 was brought down by a bomb or even a missile. During a Friday- afternoon news conference, Francis revealed that the NTSB was consulting with investigators of what proved to be bombings of an Air India jet in 1985 and of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 to see if the sounds on the TWA voice recorder match up with those recovered from the other two downed planes.

At the Friday news briefing, James Kallstrom, head of the FBI team investigating the crash, said, “We need forensic evidence” before deciding the crash was a criminal act, at which point the FBI would take control of the case from the NTSB. By itself, Kallstrom suggested, the voice-recorder tape could not rule out the possibility of a “catastrophic” malfunction aboard TWA Flight 800, no matter how improbable most aviation experts deem that explanation to be. But the reasons for doubting the catastrophic hypothesis–and for suspecting a bomb–can be summarized as follows:

–Speed. There was an instantaneous and simultaneous loss of data flowing into the flight-data recorder and into all four microphones feeding into the cockpit-voice recorder. Communications with the ground abruptly halted, and no Mayday calls were detected. The cockpit-voice recorder contains neither alarmed comments among the crew nor beeping by warning indicators. Investigators tell Time that medical examinations of the recovered bodies of flight attendants indicate they were not strapped in their seats, anticipating trouble, but were moving about the cabin, apparently preparing to serve passengers. All these signs suggest a sudden, cataclysmic event, not a more slowly evolving mechanical malfunction.

–Spread. The wide pattern of the wreckage on the ocean floor seems to show the plane did not tumble into the water as a single entity but exploded high in the sky, well before impact. Radar records released by investigators late last week suggest the airliner flew on for 24 seconds after it was suddenly stricken, descending from 13,700 ft. to break up in a fireball at 8,500.

–Sightings. Eyewitnesses saw a fiery, midair explosion, not a plane faltering downward and nosing into the sea.

–Safety record. The Boeing 747 that was TWA Flight 800 had been flying for a quarter of a century without incident. The entire 747 fleet has been a bulwark of rugged dependability, with one anomalous exception. On May 9, 1976, a Continental Airlines Boeing 747-100, the same model as TWA Flight 800, leased by the prerevolutionary Iranian air force, exploded in flight and crashed near Madrid, killing 17 crew members. U.S. authorities who investigated the crash never came up with a certain cause of the disaster. But a commonly held hypothesis blamed a possible fuel leak, in one of the wing sections above the engines, that might have mixed with air and created a pocket of explosive gas.

All these details, however persuasive, remain speculative. Searching for tangible facts is harder than deducing from the past. Gathering forensic evidence involves, first of all, the laborious hauling up from the ocean floor of as much of the broken plane as possible. That process took a forward step last Friday when the NTSB’s Francis announced that two of TWA Flight 800’s four Pratt & Whitney turbo-fan engines had been located by sonar. “Obviously, engines–when you’re looking at an airplane accident–are extraordinarily important,” Francis said. Divers and remote-controlled cameras studied the engines and found nothing that would indicate a malfunction.

If government agencies involved in the investigation stick to their announced preference for physical rather than circumstantial evidence, an answer to what actually–as opposed to what almost certainly–occurred aboard Flight 800 could be a long time in coming: 10 days of searching after the crash recovered only a little more than 1% of the plane. Analysis of even that tiny bit of evidence prompted a flurry of confusing news stories. Early in the week, CNN reported that a mobile vapor detector had picked up a very faint positive reading for explosive residue on a piece of a wing. But when the piece was flown to the FBI lab in Washington and subjected to more tests, the final results were negative.

News reports also asserted that investigators had found “pitting” on pieces of the plane’s skin. Pitting is often seen in metal subjected to the high temperatures and velocities of an explosive blast. But in this case, sources tell TIME, it could simply have been caused by parts banging together as they fell. The FBI and NTSB want more samples before they assert that the flight was bombed.

The announcement, if and when it comes, that someone did place explosives aboard the flight will not necessarily segue smoothly into a swiftly paced whodunit. An hour after Flight 800 went down on July 17, the CIA’s operations center at the agency’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters summoned senior officials back to their offices. Within hours, secret cables went out to every CIA station in the world, ordering case officers to hit the streets and begin shaking down sources for leads. But there are many to check. Sources tell Time that the CIA has begun investigating the other stops that the TWA plane made up to two days before it left the Athens airport for New York City. That is because terrorists can now build timers to explode a bomb as much as 48 hours later.

Such long-range problems seemed beside the immediate point to many of the relatives of TWA Flight 800’s victims. Housed in the Ramada Plaza Hotel near New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, where the fatal flight began, they spent the week mourning their dead and growing restive as the slow, difficult recovery of bodies from the crash site dragged on. Early in the week, contradictory progress reports from the county, city, state and federal teams investigating the disaster, relayed by a host of concerned public officials, drove some of the relatives past frustration into outrage. During a near mutinous news conference involving some of the relatives on Tuesday, Max Dadi, who lost his brother Marcel, a celebrated French musician, in the crash, cried out, “We don’t care about what caused everything! We want our bodies!”

On Thursday, President Clinton and the First Lady visited the relatives at the hotel. The Clintons talked with groups and individuals among the 400 people present, hearing occasional complaints and being shown snapshots of still missing loved ones. In his speech to the group at large, the President said he was not happy with the job that had been done in keeping family members informed about the investigation. He promised that henceforth all news would be coordinated and then conveyed through the office of James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But it was what Clinton said after these private meetings, at a news conference on the tarmac at J.F.K. airport, that signaled the sea change that the crash of TWA Flight 800 had brought to U.S. commercial aviation. The President ordered tighter security measures at U.S. airports. While stressing that “we seek the cause of the [TWA] disaster,” he instructed airlines to step up their screening of passengers and baggage and to conduct preflight inspections of all planes traveling to and from the U.S.

Clinton also named Vice President Al Gore to head a panel that has 45 days to prepare a plan to install explosive-detection devices in U.S. airports as swiftly as possible. In announcing these measures, which many security experts considered long overdue, the President acknowledged that they “could increase the inconvenience and expense of air travel.”

Orders for heightened nationwide airport security make no sense unless the President and his advisers strongly suspect, despite his admonitions not to jump to conclusions, that the crash of Flight 800 was not an accident. In fact, government sources told Time that Clinton plans, perhaps as early as this Tuesday, to call on Congress to resurrect two of the sternest, most controversial measures that were dropped from the antiterrorism bill it passed last winter. One extends the Federal Government’s ability to conduct wiretaps of suspected terrorists; another eases the use of posse comitatus restrictions on the use of military personnel for domestic police investigations. Both provisions were opposed by civil libertarians when Congress first considered them after the Oklahoma City bombing.

As if the friendly skies had not grown jittery enough, last Friday a Lebanese man hijacked an Iberian airliner carrying 232 passengers bound from Madrid to Havana and–brandishing what later turned out to be a fake bomb–ordered the pilot to land in Miami, where he surrendered to authorities. This was the type of air piracy that prompted airlines and governments to install metal detectors and other devices at airports some 20 years ago. The added security eventually cut back the number of hijackings to near zero, inspiring terrorists to turn to bombs that the old-fashioned machines could not detect. If hijackings are once again possible–and if suspicions about what happened to TWA Flight 800 are confirmed–a vicious circle may be closing around the flying public. –Reported by Elaine Rivera/New York and Elaine Shannon and Douglas Waller/ Washington

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