When the ocean holds the clues

Sabotage? Missile? Bomb? Mechanical failure?

None of these possibilities have been ruled out entirely by investigators trying to pinpoint the cause of the crash of a TWA jumbo jet on July 17, but one fact is certain: Some investigators are hinting at their increasing unwillingness to blame the tragedy on criminal action.

The explosion and crash of Flight 800 killed all 230 people on board, making it one of the worst airline disasters ever to occur in the United States. The crash sent shock waves through the nation, struck fear in travelers and prompted U.S. airports to increase already tight security. New anti-terrorist legislation ensued, along with more regulations to safeguard the safety of airline passengers.

From the start, a terrorist bomb was the most likely suspect in the downing of the Boeing 747. Although the crash has yet to be formally classified as a criminal act, the FBI, led by the head of its New York field office, Assistant Director James Kallstrom, has been closely involved in the investigation since the first day, paralleling another ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The salvage operation  bringing up as much of the plane from the ocean bottom as is humanly possible was continuing as of early December, with wreckage still being retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean about 10 miles off Long Island, N.Y., The salvage operation, said to be the largest, most expensive recovery effort in aviation history, has been hampered by the 150-foot depth of the sea where the plane went down, bad weather, and a debris field that has widened to more than five miles as time and tides have taken their toll on the site. The bodies of 15 victims have not been found  and, officials say, may never be recovered.

Nearly 95 percent of the plane has been recovered and is being meticulously pieced back together at an aircraft hangar in Calverton, L.I., where each scrap, no matter how tiny, is being scrutinized by investigators. The first big break came Aug. 22, when officials revealed that traces of PETN, a chemical component of plastic explosives, were detected from a piece of wreckage retrieved between rows of seats near the right wing. Officials later tempered their excitement at the find after learning that the plane had been used in a training exercise for bomb-sniffing dogs in June.

The 5 percent of the plane yet to be recovered is considered crucial in determining the cause of the accident. Among the missing pieces are the center section between the wings, including the cabin floor board, where an explosion of unknown origin split the plane in two, and parts of the plane’s center fuel tank, which investigators know exploded but don’t know why.

Privately, investigators are saying the crucial pieces may never be found. They may have been corroded by sea water or may have floated off and sunk many miles from the crash site. “A big problem is what we don’t have,” one investigator told The New York Times. “There is a good chance we will never find much more of the floorboard.”

FBI agents also are questioning family members of those who perished, as well as ground crew members who could have had access to the jet during stops on its Athens-New York-Paris route. Some members of the ground crews reportedly had criminal convictions or had ties to terrorist or extremist groups. But at press time, no new developments on that angle of the investigation had been reported.

Many people who witnessed the crash from the Long Island shore said they saw a streak of light speeding toward the plane just before it exploded, prompting speculation that a missile  fired either by terrorists or the result of a “friendly fire”  caused the disaster. Over many weeks following the crash, that theory was kept alive on the Internet and received renewed interest in November, when Pierre Salinger, a former Presidential press secretary and, more recently, Paris bureau chief for ABC News, said he had received classified information that the plane was downed by an errant U.S. Navy missile test-fired from a ship in the area. While the claim made headlines for a few days, it was itself shot down by Kallstrom, who called the report “absolutely pure unadulterated nonsense, just an outrageous allegation.”

Nevertheless, after interviewing Salinger in New York last month, FBI officials reportedly told him to keep digging. Adding to the mystery were the reports of pilots on two different planes flying through the area on Nov. 16 that they had seen streaks of light near the flight corridor. While a large meteor shower occurred in the area that weekend, the pilots’ sightings renewed speculation on the missile theory.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Kallstrom, who had maintained that the disaster had the markings of a criminal act, appeared to back away from that theory, since no pieces of the plane’s wreckage have concretely pointed to that cause. “From the standpoint of logic, it is becoming less likely that a bomb or missile caused this crash. We have a large percentage of the plane and we still have no evidence of a bomb or missile.”

Among the victims of the tragedy were three passengers with ties to law enforcement: Portland, Ore., Det. Susan Hill, 45, a 22-year law enforcement veteran, who was among the first group of female officers hired by the Police Bureau in the early 1970s, and the first woman to join the agency’s Hostage Negotiation Team; Pam Lynchner, 37, of Houston, was a crime victim who turned her frustration with the criminal justice system into a nationwide victims’ advocacy group, Justice For All; and Janet Christopher, 47, a TWA flight attendant, the wife of FBI agent Charlie Christopher, who worked for Kallstrom in the New York office.

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]