A specter of doubt shrouds the deaths of the 230 people aboard the Paris-bound TWA jet that exploded in flaming chunks and corkscrewed into the ocean: Was it an accident or a terrorist act?
President Clinton urged Americans not to assume that Wednesday night’s crash of Flight 800 was the work of terrorists. “We do not know what caused this tragedy. We will determine what happened,” he said.
Officials said there have been calls claiming responsibility for the crash - but none of them credible.
Still, there were widespread suspicions that terrorists were behind the second-worst U.S. airplane crash, which killed all 212 passengers and 18 crew members.
“While all the evidence is not yet in, early signs clearly point to a possibility of terrorism,” said Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
The FBI’s terrorism task force took the lead role in the investigation, but officials stressed that does not imply any conclusion about the cause of the crash. The task force will work alongside the National Transportation Safety Board, which routinely investigates airline accidents.
There was some speculation that a surface-to-air missile, perhaps fired from a boat off the coast of Long Island, could have brought the plane down, but officials sought to dispel that.
“There’s no American official with half a brain who ought to be speculating on anything of that nature. There’s no concrete information that would lead any of us in the United States goverment to draw that kind of conclusion,” said White House spokesman Mike McCurry.
Asked about broadcast reports that radar had detected a blip merging with the jet shortly before the explosion, something that could indicate a missile hit, a federal law enforcement official said investigators are reviewing radar records. “But there still could be other explanations for the blip; it’s not necessarily an object,” the official said.
At John F. Kennedy Airport and airports in Paris and Rome - the plane’s final destination - shellshocked relatives of the victims were ushered into private areas and comforted by counselors and clergy. Two busloads of people arrived in New York from Montoursville, Pa., where townspeople mourned the loss of 16 members of the high-school French club and five chaperons.
Coming on the eve of the Olympics, the crash cast a pall on athletes, organizers and tourists in Atlanta, where security measures already had been tightened in advance of the Games.
Several miles off Long Island’s coastline, remnants of the plane were piled aboard the Coast Guard cutter Juniper - a piece of the tail, a sink, less identifiable bits of metal and wood. Also piled up were remnants of the lives: a poetry anthology, a post card written in German.
By late Thursday, searchers had recovered more than 125 bodies, many of them charred.
Refrigerator trucks were brought to East Moriches, where a temporary morgue was set up. Body parts and corpses were brought to the shore on rafts, and workers in white jumpsuits put them in body bags.
A law enforcement official said he was told by the FBI that, based on eyewitness accounts from Air National Guard pilots, investigators “are leaning more towards the possibility that it was a bomb that caused the plane to explode.”
“A fireball fell from the sky,” said the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity. “What would have caused that? … We know there was nothing on board, other than fuel, that could have caused that huge an explosion.”
Greek officials said the jetliner had passed multiple security checks at the Athens airport earlier the same day.
Finding the culprit could take time. It took seven days for investigators to determine conclusively that a bomb blew Pan Am Flight 103 out of the air Dec. 21, 1988, over Lockerbie, Scotland. A total of 270 people were killed, including 11 on the ground.
TWA’s Flight 800 exploded off the coast of New York’s trendy summer playground about 8:40 p.m. Wednesday, breaking into flaming chunks and crashing into the sea.
The number of victims was raised by two to 230 Thursday night by the airline.
Capt. Steve Snyder, of Stratford, Conn., was in the pilot’s seat, doing a routine check of the performance of Capt. Ralph Kevorkian, of Garden Grove, Calif., who was in the first officer’s seat, said TWA spokesman Mark Abels. Both were described as veteran 747 captains.
Two crews of New York Air National Guard flights witnessed the explosion.
“We passed over a stream of debris, and we spotted 20 to 30 bodies all floating - a clump - floating in the water. They looked like they were sleeping,” said Maj. Frederick Meyer, a National Guard helicopter pilot.
Meyer’s helicopter was about five miles away from where the plane hit the water.
The other aircraft, a C-130 transport plane, was about 10 miles away.
“We saw a massive ball of fire, a pillaring tower, which I thought could be a meteor,” said Maj. Michael Weiss, 38, who was piloting the C-130. “We couldn’t hear anything because of the loud noise of our own aircraft. But there was a big bright flash of explosion.”
Civilian boaters swarmed to the scene, snagging flotsam and delivering it to investigators ashore.
Racing over the glassy black water on a calm, dark night, Brian Kelly’s boat was one of the first to get there. “It became very real when we saw the boat right next to us pull out that first body. It was a lady with a white skirt,” Kelly said.
Boater Frank Panzarella, of Dix Hills, who lugged ashore a flight attendant’s jump seat and two doors that apparently came from an overhead compartment, said the Coast Guard was especially interested in his other find: a soot-covered hinge, apparently from one of the compartments. Police whisked Panzarella away.
The crash was the second major airline disaster in slightly more than two months, following the May 11 Florida Everglades crash of a ValuJet DC-9 that killed all 110 people aboard.
The deadliest air disaster in U.S. history came in 1979, when a DC-10 crashed on takeoff at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, killing 273.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: NORTHWEST VICTIMS There were three Washington state residents among the 230 people aboard Trans World Airlines Flight 800. They were: Sandra Meade, 42, TWA Flight 800 crew, Camano Island. Marit E. Rhoads, 48, TWA Flight 800 Crew, Bellevue. (married to Scott Rhoads) Scott Rhoads, 48, schoolteacher, Bellevue. There were no Idaho residents listed as passengers or crew. A more extensive list of passengers and crew is available on-line on Virtually Northwest. Their Internet address is http://www.VirtuallyNW.com.