Searchers on Saturday found a mile-long trail of debris on the ocean floor off Long Island leading to what could be the fuselage of TWA Flight 800, potentially the most important piece of evidence in the quest to determine whether a terrorist bomb downed the jumbo jet and killed all 230 people on board.
Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the wreckage was located by U.S. Navy and New York City police searchers on vessels scouring the area where the Boeing 747 was believed to have entered the water after the jet exploded in a giant fireball Wednesday evening.
As the investigation continued, police flew members of the families of several of the victims to the site of the wreck. After some pressure from the FBI and New York governor’s office, the size of the medical examiner’s team working on the remains was expanded and put on a 24-hour schedule. The Navy and Coast Guard were pressed to step up the pace of the search for wreckage.
Grieving and frustrated relatives of the crash victims told officials they were growing increasingly anxious to claim the remains of their loved ones. Some charged that the FBI was withholding information or that resources had been drained by the Olympics in Atlanta.
“We want the wreckage off the floor for forensic evidence. The families want it because they want the bodies for closure. I am harassing the hell out of them to get that stuff off the sea floor,” said James Kallstrom, head the FBI’s New York office and director of the investigation.
While Francis and FBI officials visited with relatives of victims of the crash in a bid to ease their concerns, there were a number of signs that the investigation was moving toward the conclusion that it was a bomb that brought down the plane, a well-maintained jet that had no record of any particularly serious mechanical problems.
U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, briefed regularly by the FBI, said the investigation “seemed to be moving” toward that result. Kallstrom, an exMarine and Vietnam veteran with a reputation for tough talk, said it was unlikely that a mechanical failure caused the blast, although he sharply criticized the media for leaping to conclusions about the case.
“I know there was a catastrophic event on the airplane. The least likely thing is mechanical,” said Kallstrom, whose professional interest in the crash was mirrored by a personal interest: a friend of 25 years, one of the flight crew members, was killed.
But he said he was still waiting for evidence that would present some proof of what happened, or a confession from someone responsible.
The Paris-bound airliner was still in its climb to cruising altitude when it was ripped apart by a massive explosion that created a huge fireball. Wreckage continued to wash ashore Saturday. Less than 1 percent of the huge plane has been recovered, according to Francis.
Investigators have pored over the maintenance records of the plane and the flight records of its pilots, both of them 30-year veterans with thousands of hours in TWA cockpits.
But investigators’ greatest interest has been in the biggest part of the plane that was likely to have survived the crash, the center section of the fuselage, very heavily built and reinforced because of the wings. The fuselage also includes a cargo hold.
Authorities believe this also is the part of the plane most likely to contain remains of passengers, which could provide crucial evidence about what happened. Medical examiners will look for shards of metal that could indicate an on-board explosion. Nothing like that has been found among remains yet.
Francis and Kallstrom characterized the discovery of the wreckage in about 100 feet of water as “heartening” news, because if the hulk is the 747 fuselage, investigators will have their first look at parts of the plane that would have been most affected by an on-board bomb.
Francis, who denied earlier reports that searchers had heard pinging from locators on the plane’s flight recorders, said the underwater debris was discovered by side-scanning sonar devices and a special towed sonar array that was damaged when it caught on the wreckage.
Francis cautioned later that investigators still don’t know what the hulk is and that it could be the rusting remains of some World War II-era wreckage.
If investigators have located the fuselage of the plane, then searchers will move quickly to remove the remains of the victims and raise as much of the wreckage as soon as possible. Medical examiners have said all of the 104 bodies recovered so far were in the front or back of the plane. Many of the remaining victims are likely to be in the fuselage.
While one part of the federal effort focused on searching for the dead and wreckage on Saturday, another turned to the victim’s families. Kallstrom hugged and comforted many of the family members during his briefing for them at the hotel outside Kennedy International Airport where they are being housed.
“This is a period of horrible anxiety for the families,” said U.S. Sen. Al D’Amato, R-N.Y., who attended the briefing. “They broke down in Kallstrom’s arms. They shared grief and anguish. They have all sorts of questions: Is information being withheld because of the Olympics? Are sufficient resources being utilized?”
Kallstrom said later that he told the families this is the first time in his 26-year career as an FBI agent that he has been told to ask for anything he wants or needs.
He said the Olympics are in no way compromising the investigation, that he has all the resources he needs, everywhere in the world, and can ask for more at moment’s notice.
“I tried to explain to them. I told them I knew they weren’t that interested in who did this right now, but they may be interested in that later,” Kallstrom said. “What they were really interested in is getting the bodies of their loved ones back.”