As divers continued to scour the ocean floor for bodies and clues to the cause of the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800, the victims’ relatives repeatedly posed an anguished question on Wednesday: Why haven’t divers recovered the dozens of bodies they have found on the ocean floor?
The answer, investigators said, reflects the internal tensions of a salvage operation that has had to balance the investigative need to collect evidence of a possible crime with the emotional imperative to recover victims’ bodies. The effort has also encountered significant logistical problems, including the extreme difficulty of reaching bodies and body parts that divers have seen tangled amid wreckage on the ocean floor, officials said. To reach much the remains, recovery workers will have to move large sections of the plane’s fuselage.
Publicly, officials and investigators have said that their first priority is to recover the bodies of the crash victims. But the law-enforcement officials, speaking privately, say they are at least as concerned with retrieving evidence as fast as possible, before the clues that might point to an act of sabotage are washed away by the ocean.
Investigators say they are also concerned that moving the wreckage to recover the bodies could destroy material that could explain last Wednesday night’s explosion of the jetliner off the coast of Long Island.
These clashing priorities have resulted in conflicting public statements about what has been found on the ocean floor, making a frustrating wait even more agonizing to the relatives of the victims.
The handling of the bodies reflects a not-uncommon problem confronting disaster investigators, who are trying to meet the challenge of dealing with an area considered both a potential crime scene and a recovery area. While investigators want to return as many bodies to the grieving relatives as possible, law-enforcement officials, who suspect that the plane may have been brought down by a criminal act, want to insure that no evidence is lost.
At an emotional news conference on Wednesday morning at the Ramada Plaza Hotel at Kennedy International Airport, relatives of victims, many wearing buttons saying “Loved and Lost,” demanded the truth from investigators.
“Everybody in that room has already been hurt as much as they possibly can,” said Joseph Lychner of Houston, whose 37-year-old wife, Pamela, and two young daughters died in the crash. “Don’t spare us our feelings. Tell us what you know, now.”
Max Dadi, a relative of a victim from France, said: “We don’t care what caused it. We want our bodies back.”
Within hours of the families’ news conference, the White House announced that President Clinton would fly to New York City today to meet with the victims’ families.
“Right now, the families want the bodies for closure and to get along with their lives,” a leading law-enforcement official said on Wednesday. “But a month from now, they are going to want evidence so we can find the people who may have done this. We are trying to balance both right now, and it is very difficult.”