The investigative and recovery effort that has followed the July 17 crash of TWA Flight 800 has been massive, bringing the NTSB, the FBI and the U.S. Navy together off the coast of Long Island. Yet gradually, painstakingly, the fragments of the plane are being recovered and analyzed, and more and victims's bodies are brought to rest on land. Progress is being made. Elizabeth Farnsworth reports, and interviews Adam Horvath of Long Island Newsday.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After TWA Flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island July 17th, one of the largest recovery and investigative teams in history was assembled to locate victims and figure out why the tragedy occurred. The U.S. Navy contributed three ships and six hundred and fifty personnel to help in the recovery, including 120 divers who have made more than 2,500 dives. The National Transportation Safety Board has 30 investigators working around the clock, and the FBI has more than 200 agents investigating the case.
Now, five weeks after the crash, bodies of 209 of the 230 victims have been found. After frequent delays due to poor weather and limited visibility for divers, more than half of the Boeing 747 has been lifted from the Atlantic. But investigators still have not determined what caused the crash. In the first week of press briefings, FBI Director James Kallstrom appeared confident that an answer would be found fairly quickly.
JAMES KALLSTROM, FBI Director, New York: (July 25) We have a very, very active investigation. We're still getting very good information, so when the day comes, and I think it'll be soon, I don't think it'll be too long, whether it's going to be three or four days or a week, I don't know the answer, that we decide collectively and based on science and based on good forensic investigation, we will be able to move swiftly, aggressively, professionally.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But since then, officials have been much more cautious as the investigation proved to be difficult and complex. On Monday, Kallstrom was asked--
REPORTER: Is it conceivable that 99 percent of the aircraft could have been brought up and you still wouldn't have any answers for what happened?
JAMES KALLSTROM: Well, sure, it's conceivable. I guess anything's conceivable. But I think it's--I hope it's unlikely. We still feel that, that we will get the answers.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: From the beginning, the two-track investigation led by the NTSB and the FBI has considered three possibilities--a missile, a mechanical malfunction, or, more likely, a bomb. But so far, there is no conclusive forensic evidence for any of those possibilities. A key focus of the inquiry now is the center fuel tank. Damage in that area has led investigators to conclude an explosion occurred there. But in his press conference today, Robert Francis, NTSB Vice Chairman, refused to go any further.
ROBERT FRANCIS, Vice Chairman, NTSB: You know, I think it's fair to say that in that area of the central fuel tank that, that there is evidence that there was an explosion, and, uh, and I don't think I'm going to go further than that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So the question remains why, what caused that fuel tank to explode? To explore that and other questions, we're joined by Adam Horvath, a deputy Long Island editor for Newsday. He's overseeing the paper's coverage of the TWA crash. Thanks for being with us, Mr. Horvath.
ADAM HORVATH, Newsday: (New York City) Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let's start with what is known. How do investigators know that there was an explosion in the central fuel tank area?
MR. HORVATH: Well, there are some indications from inside the central fuel tank, the way that it's burned, the pieces that it pulled up are indicative of an explosion. And one thing that's proved key are the rivets that--behind the seams of the airplane that have popped in a way that's consistent with an explosion, although they can't be sure, as I understand it, what type of explosion, there's a difference between the low energy explosion of a fuel tank, or the high energy explosion of something like a bomb.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: They're exploring whether there could have been a vapor explosion, is that right? Can you explain that?
MR. HORVATH: What--the scenario that they're looking at is because the central fuel tank which holds about 12,000 gallons of jet fuel was mostly empty, the standard for empty is about fifty to a hundred gallons left in the tank. It kind of sloshes around in there, and you can't get that last bit out. Vapors can develop in the mostly empty tank. This is considered routine. It's not considered a safety hazard normally, but it's possible that those vapors for some reason did develop into something that is--that could explode.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There would be various explanations for that, right? They could have gotten very hot for sitting on the ground in New York, it was 80--over 80 degrees--or would there be some mechanical reason inside the tank that they're looking at?
MR. HORVATH: Well, there's a difficulty with the temperature because they don't believe there would have been any reason they would have been hot enough to explode on their own without some sort of catalyst. There had been some problems with the fuel system in the 747's. Boeing had put out a warning about the fuel pumps corroding. These are kinds of things that have been known to lead to small fires but nothing along the lines of a catastrophic explosion. The other kind of thing that could set it off, obviously, would be an explosive device planted near enough to the central fuel tank, the tank that sets it off.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let's talk about the bomb possibility. What's the latest on that?
MR. HORVATH: Well, the latest is the same place it's really been for almost a month, which is there are many investigators who believe a bomb is the likeliest possibility that largely comes from the way the plane seemed to have blow up so suddenly, without warning. There has never been a case of a simple break-up that fast in mid-air in a plane that wasn't landing or on the ground or something like that. So there is that strong possibility in investigators' minds, but they haven't been able to find any evidence from the plane itself or from the bodies that they've recovered that shows the characteristics of a bomb.
Those characteristics are pretty distinctive. It has to deal with the pattern of pitting on metal parts or something that's called gas washing, that's indicative of the type of shock wave that you get from--from a bomb, whether it be plastic explosive or some other kind of a device. So they've been unable to get any of that or any explosive residue from any part of the plane that they've pulled up.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There was that test right in the beginning that showed some residue and then apparently a more sophisticated test showed that the first test had been wrong. What do investigators say about that? Do they--do some people still believe that first test was right?
MR. HORVATH: Well, there's been some dispute about what those tests show and the reliability of the tests on the site. The machine they have on site obviously they brought up there to indicate what pieces of the plane might be worth bringing down to Washington for a more complete test. It's an elaborate process. The very fact that the machine picked up something that might have been an explosive residue doesn't--the investigators have stopped calling that a positive test.
They started calling that something that's just indicative, and when they bring it down to Washington, they don't find anything, it's inconclusive. It's possible that they'll find something that the Washington equipment picks up and is able to say definitively that's explosive residue, but so far nothing has turned out that way.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about the missile as an explanation, what's happened with that? Twelve eye witnesses, including a National Guard pilot, said they saw something arching up towards the sky. What's happened with that--arching up towards the plane?
MR. HORVATH: Right, exactly. It's difficult even to discuss the missile theory in a way without feeling like you've slipped into some parallel universe where this is possible. Obviously nothing like that has ever happened before, but it's possible, whether it's a bomb or a mechanical malfunction, that nothing quite like it has ever happened before to U.S. aircraft. The missile theory, yes, the eyewitnesses, the problem with that is that it's not uncommon, especially when one witness is on television, for other witnesses to tell a similar story.
That's a problem with the eyewitnesses, and the other problem is that the range of missiles, it's theoretically possible that a missile could reach that plane at its altitude. You'd have to mount it on a boat that would have had to get away somehow. People would have had to not hear the noise of the missile or somehow fire it from land, from something fairly elaborate. It's unlikely a shoulder-fired missile from the land several miles from where the plane was offshore could actually reach the plane.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But it hasn't been ruled out. The FBI hasn't ruled it out?
MR. HORVATH: They haven't ruled a thing out, and the reason is they don't have any evidence pointing them in one particular direction, and they don't have evidence--any evidence that rules out any of the theories. So they stick with them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And back on the mechanical failure, beyond the fuel tank and what might have happened there, is there any other mechanical failure that's being seriously looked at now?
MR. HORVATH: The fuel tank has really gotten a lot of attention in the past several days or even a couple of weeks because I think it's the one thing that they've actually had evidence that says, yes, there's an explosion here. Whether it's the explosion that brought down the plane or something else happened first, that's what they can't be sure of.
The problem with any mechanical problem, including that one, is there's never been one to bring down a plane where there was no time, no indication of any mechanical malfunction before the plane actually exploded or, or crashed, no time for the flight crew to signal the ground, the transponder clicks off at the same instant as everything else on the plane. Again, it's never happened before, but it could be the first time, no matter what brought down the plane.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally, we just have a few seconds left, but what about background checks on passengers, is the FBI still doing that?
MR. HORVATH: Well, yeah. They've been hesitant to go the full route of interviewing all the families of the victims, given that they haven't yet gotten the evidence to declare it a crime, that, that means that they need to proceed that way. But they have been doing checks on the backgrounds of the passengers on the plane, and the passengers who were on the first leg of the plane from Athens to JFK.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Adam Horvath, thank you very much. That was--that helped. Thank you.
MR. HORVATH: Thank you.