Amid descriptions of a ghastly undersea panorama of jagged wreckage, trailing wires and possibly scores of bodies, federal authorities Tuesday quashed reports that traces of explosives were found on a wing fragment from TWA Flight 800.
They said sophisticated tests at FBI headquarters showed no sign of explosives, contradicting preliminary tests at a laboratory on Long Island.
Two new pieces of wreckage were shipped to the FBI lab Tuesday, and authorities said sabotage remained the most likely cause of the tragedy that claimed 230 lives and shocked the nation nearly a week ago.
“If this was a terrorist attack,” said James Kallstrom, director of the FBI’s office, “there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that we will know who did this and where they are.
“The only question is, can we take them around the neck?”
At the same time, New York Gov. George Pataki depicted a horrific scene 104 feet under the ocean surface: scores of victims trapped in slabs of fuselage.
“There are bodies caught within that wreckage,” Pataki said. “It could be anywhere from 60 to 100.
“These are very difficult conditions under water, looking through pieces of fuselage, looking through wreckage. There will be dozens and dozens of additional bodies recovered that will be identified and returned to their families.”
But investigators on the scene said divers had not discovered any such accumulation of victims. They said Pataki apparently assumed that the wreckage contained those bodies, an assumption they described as reasonable.
On Tuesday, the Navy dispatched a floating command post and brought in its most sophisticated salvage ship, the USS Grasp, equipped with 23 divers, a robot submarine and winches and cranes for lifting heavy objects to the surface.
Divers and salvagers retrieved at least three more bodies Tuesday, but no significant debris.
Recovery of bodies remained the top priority, said Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
“We’re going to bring those bodies up as quickly as we can and, if this means disturbing the wreckage, we’ll do that,” he said. “Bodies get the priority.”
All 212 passengers and 18 crew members aboard the Boeing 747 perished when the Paris-bound plane exploded and shattered 13,700 feet above the Atlantic soon after takeoff a week ago tonight.
“I think the least damning thing for this country is to have it not be a terrorist event,” Kallstrom said.
“As bad as it is to say, I hope that it’s a mechanical problem.”