Investigators hoping to prove a theory that TWA Flight 800 was destroyed by a bomb that blew off the cockpit and first-class cabin directed divers to search Sunday for a crucial piece of the airliner’s aluminum skin.
“We need that piece of sheet metal” in order to finally declare the crash a crime, a source close to the investigation told The Associated Press.
The search focused on a field of debris on the ocean bottom where the first collection of wreckage fell along the Paris-bound plane’s flight path, including first-class seats and the front landing gear.
“Things that come off first tend to be an indicator of what happened,” said Robert Francis, head of the search, explaining investigators’ interest in the area. “We’re always interested in what came off first.”
Investigators were speculating that the explosion was caused by a bomb in the front cargo section, one of them told The AP.
The jet apparently “flew without a front for 10 to 11 seconds” after the initial blast, the source said.
But while they focused on that theory, they had neither discounted the possibility of a missile, nor ruled out the possibility of mechanical failure, according to the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, would not confirm or deny the primacy of the bomb theory. But he said searchers were “obviously interested in anything in the front of the aircraft that might include the cockpit area.”
The investigative source said a piece of the plane’s aluminum skin close to the explosion would probably tell what caused the blast and whether the metal was pierced from the inside (a bomb) or the outside (a missile).
Some passengers in the plane’s first-class section were thrown out by the July 17 explosion 10 miles off the south shore of Long Island, which killed all 230 people on board.