After two months and a series of unexpected setbacks, investigators probing the crash of TWA Flight 800 have quietly begun discussing contingency plans for what to tell the public should they ultimately fail to solve the mystery of what caused the jumbo jet to explode over the ocean off Long Island.
The preliminary discussions come as rescue workers have retrieved about 80 percent of the wreckage, none of which has revealed whether the plane was the victim of a bomb, a missile or mechanical failure.
Should there still be no resolution after the rest of the plane is recovered - expected by this fall - and other steps are taken, officials are considering several options for what then lay before the public. These range from an interim report on the crash to admitting they are temporarily stymied.
“We’ve talked generally on some of these issues,” FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom acknowledged in an interview Tuesday.
“But we haven’t crystallized our response yet. I don’t know exactly what we would say or who would say what. We haven’t put any words on paper yet.”
While officials continue to vow they will solve the crash, this new planning contrasts with the public assurances issued by investigators and reveals a reality that is far less optimistic.
Only five of the crashes involving 350 large commercial planes that have occurred in the United States since 1967 have gone unsolved, and those solved include the closest example most often cited to the TWA catastrophe, the 1988 Pan Am 103 crash over Lockerbie, Scotland.
But it is now clear that the TWA disaster, a night crash over water, poses problems far thornier than most other crashes.
Kallstrom and other federal officials continue to show confidence in public that they will solve the July 17 tragedy, a position bolstered not only by statistics but by numerous outside experts who caution that because this is such a complicated case, the inquiry must be allowed to run its course.
With federal officials now hoping that the remaining 20 percent of wreckage holds the key to the cause of the crash, they also are moving on several other fronts to further focus their inquiry.
Those strategies include re-examining the thousands of pieces of the plane already gathered in a Calverton, N.Y., hangar, dredging the ocean floor for any parts still lost, and bringing in an identical 747 jetliner for close-up comparison.
“These are the kinds of things that are being considered,” said Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Investigators already are taking preliminary steps to further refine their search and possibly to comb the ocean floor for the smallest shards of wreckage. They have contacted private companies and have gotten estimates of the time and cost of dredging the two major areas of debris.
Estimates are that dredging could take as long as six weeks in the two areas where most of the wreckage has been found, at a rough cost of $2 million.
The NTSB and the FBI are considering vacuuming smaller selected areas.
Among the key items still missing is 40 percent of the center fuel tank, and the tank’s third fuel pump.