August 14, 1996 in Nation/World

Theories Slowly Thin Out Pieces Of Twa Jet Point Way To Answers

New York Times

One day it was the front cargo hold, an obvious place to conceal a bomb. Another day it was the cockpit, where an explosive device might have been hidden in a cooler. Then there was the possibility that an engine came unhinged, touching off a catastrophic mechanical failure.

One by one these theories have been raised, and one by one they have fallen as investigators continue to pull pieces of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 from the waters off eastern Long Island.

But investigators say they are following a deliberate course that has made significant progress. Although the evidence has not explained what caused the plane to break apart, the discoveries have gone a long way, they say, toward explaining what did not happen.

Tuesday, in fact, investigators said they had concluded that the center fuel tank on the plane burned as many as 24 seconds after the initial blast, a finding that deals a serious blow to the already remote chance that a mechanical accident caused the crash.

If the investigation’s rhythm seems slow to outsiders, it follows a beat familiar to veterans of crime scenes and airline accidents. Theorizing, they say, is elemental in virtually all investigations.

“You set ‘em up and you knock ‘em down,” said Rudy Kapustin, a former investigator-in-charge for the safety board. “That’s what you have to do.”

Investigators initially proposed three possible causes for the July 17 crash that killed all 230 aboard: a bomb, a missile, or mechanical failure. The last of these options, investigators say, seems more remote in light of Tuesday’s evidence.

Indeed, most investigators believe a bomb caused the crash. Preventing a public embrace of the theory, however, has been the lack of conclusive evidence.

Magnifying the absence of any conclusion are the daily news briefings by officials supervising the investigation. The sessions have allowed the public to witness an investigation in progress, one that has not followed the simple, narrative flow of a “Murder, She Wrote” episode.

Nevertheless, there have been answers.

For example, one theory held that a bomb might have been concealed in luggage packed into the front baggage bins.

Earlier this week, however, investigators announced they had recovered the last of the four baggage bins. Each, they said, was “basically unremarkable.”

Then there was the cooler. Moments before Flight 800 left for Paris, a sealed cooler from an eye bank was stowed in the cockpit; inside were corneas being shipped to Paris. Because the cooler had never been inspected, one investigator theorized it could have held a bomb.

But a tentative line was drawn through this theory when searchers found that glass covers on many of the pilot’s gauges had not shattered, making the possibility of a bomb in the cockpit much less likely.

And then, the discovery this week of the last of the jet’s four engines seemed to weaken two other theories: that an engine had become unhinged and slammed into a second engine, or that a heat-seeking missile had downed the plane. The engine, like the others, appeared badly damaged, but was generally intact.

So goes the tedious process. And as some theories fall victim to the ever-emerging evidence, other theories surface, are tinkered with and tested. Kapustin likened the process to putting together an adult’s jigsaw puzzle, only with a twist.

“You take one of those puzzles, one with thousands of pieces, and you throw it on the floor,” he said. “You take those pieces, you stomp on them, bend them, rip them apart. And then you say, ‘Here. Now put it back together.”’

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