TWA - FLIGHT 800 - CRASH
JULY 19, 1996
An update on the crash of TWA Flight 800. While investigators waited out the bad weather on Long Island, they briefed reporters on what they've learned so far. First up was Dr. Charles Wetli, the Suffolk County Medical Examiner.
CHARLES WETLI, Suffolk County Medical Examiner: Okay. To date, we have recovered 100 bodies and a number of body parts. Our biggest problem at the moment is getting information from the families basically concerning identifying characteristics such as dental X-rays, regular X-rays, medical records, anything that's distinctive, like scars, tattoos, and so forth. To address this, Suffolk County Police Department of the homicide section, as well as personnel from our office, are meeting with the families and are obtaining as much information on that as possible. It's my understanding TWA has given kits to the families so they can expedite the delivery of dental records to us. As of this moment, we have tentative identifications on 16 of the individuals. We have two positive identifications. The two positive identifications come from fingerprints for one individual and secondly by visual identification of the other. Unfortunately, one of our volunteer dentists knew one of the victims on the plane and was able to make the identification, but even that is going to be confirmed by dental X-rays. In a three to one ratio, the victims have been coming in to us without clothing. And that also means, therefore, sometimes, many times without identifiers such as wallets, driver's licenses, and that. The lack of clothing is because of the mechanics of the explosion and crash, which literally will tear clothing off of these victims. So this is to some extent even hampering the tentative identification. One final comment before questioning, in the movies and the entertainment industry, we all can see Quincy on TV and he identifies people very quickly. In reality, it is a slow, arduous, tedious process, and we have to be accurate. So this is not going to be accomplished overnight. It will take days, I think, before we will be satisfied with the identification.
REPORTER: Doctor, can you talk about--
REPORTER: Doctor, has this revealed anything about the nature of the explosion, itself?
DR. CHARLES WETLI: The autopsies do not reveal anything about the nature of the explosion. So far the pattern of injuries we are seeing are those from deceleration, in other words, impact, high speed impact.
REPORTER: Doctor, can you talk about the immediacy of death and whether any survived for any period of time?
DR. CHARLES WETLI: That's really, it's really a hard question to answer. I think for--generically the only thing I can say is that death would have occurred almost instantaneously for the vast majority of people on there. The few things we've seen suggesting vegetative functions after impact are probably either in people who are either unconscious or in a dying process at that particular time. I think it's important to realize that this is basically a non-survivable crash and death is going to be virtually instantaneous.
REPORTER: So would the death have been in the sky or upon impact with the water?
DR. CHARLES WETLI: It could have been both. The deceleration injuries we're seeing can be probably from collisions of victims inside the aircraft, itself, hitting other portions of the aircraft and traveling in different directions at that moment, or it could also have been from free fall to the water, itself. I think what's important to realize is that in a tragedy of this sort most likely consciousness would have been lost momentarily--almost immediately after the explosion would have taken place and the people would probably have been unconscious by the time they hit the water.
REPORTER: Is there an indication, Doctor, based on the people you are finding, is there an indication that there may be people in part of the plane that did not explode based on the injuries you're seeing?
DR. CHARLES WETLI: I think it's very likely there are people who are still in the plane, yes. We still have over a hundred bodies that have not been recovered. I think everybody suspicions that they're at 120 feet of water inside the plane, itself, and that have not been exploded.
REPORTER: Is there any sign of heat or fire in your--
DR. CHARLES WETLI: The--so far, there have been no signs of fire injury, thermal injury on any of the victims. Dr. Stew Dawson, our deputy chief medical example was at the scene supervising the body recovery effort, and he informs me that the bodies that he's seen, which I think is probably the most of them, he's only seen some minor burn injuries, and this was probably from the fire of the burning fuel on the water more than anything else?
REPORTER: Are you seeing trace chemicals that are not consistent with the explosion of the airplane, chemicals that would be unusual, or may have been part of any kind of bomb?
DR. CHARLES WETLI: That is not--testing for chemicals that would be bomb components is really beyond our capability, I think. And that's not something that we would be able to find in a bombing victim unless it was a chemical bomb like for chemical warfare or something like that, but a bomb meant to explode and destroy is not something that we would find chemically adherent to the body or inside the body that we could analyze for.
REPORTER: Doctor, the body count was roughly 104 from yesterday, correct?
DR. CHARLES WETLI: Correct.
REPORTER: Then there's been no bodies recovered since yesterday or within the last 24 hours?
DR. CHARLES WETLI: Right, approximately right, since this last night, right?
REPORTER: Is there any reason for that? Did they stop--
DR. CHARLES WETLI: No. I think it's because most likely the bodies are underwater, inside the remains of the plane.
REPORTER: Were any of the--any victims attached to life jackets, or did it look like anybody had tried to save themselves?
DR. CHARLES WETLI: No. There was no indication that anybody had any opportunity to do--to get a life jacket or anything like that. It--pretty much as we have heard the accounts already and consistent with those accounts is that it happened instantaneously. There was no chance for anything. There was no warning.
MR. LEHRER: Later in the day, federal officials spoke. Robert Francis of the National Transportation Safety Board and James Kallstrom of the FBI.
ROBERT FRANCIS, Vice-Chairman, NTSB: I've been with the families for most of the morning and at JFK, and they had a meeting at noon with the medical examiner. We talked a little bit about what you folks heard about last night. They asked some questions of the NTSB that I would say at this point their interest was, was very much understandably more with what the medical examiner was doing and what was happening there, so we will continue to work--work with those folks and do whatever we can. But the medical examiner has certainly got a major role to play at this point. On the search for wreckage out there, the structures team went out this morning at 8 o'clock. As you can tell, anybody that's here, the wind is blowing pretty hard, and they went to a spot starting the search where there had been some bubbling of jet fuel last night just before they came in. They did have time to use the side scanner sonar, and they did find a spike quite close to the spot where that oil had been coming up. One of the problems was that it was so rough out there that a lot of the people that were on the ship were getting sick. They did have divers with them, but as we explained before, the divers are for recovery; they're not for locating. So the divers did not go in the water because we're not--still not sure of the location. Given how rough it was, we were at risk of losing the sonar if it was towed, and that would be a long-term setback in terms of replacing it. So it was decided, given that the weather was not good, it was very rough, that they would come back in, which they did. Now, they're planning to go back out again tomorrow morning and resume. This will, obviously, again, be contingent on what the weather is like in the morning. Hopefully, it'll be quieter, but this afternoon, it's, it's predicted to get rougher with stronger winds. The NOAA ship that was out there, which is used to being out in the ocean and doing work in this, in this environment, it was--got sufficiently rough so that they decided to go into port because their crew members were hitting their heads on the deck of the ship down below, so I guess it suffices to say that it's pretty rough out there, and that's going to delay that part of the investigation.
JAMES KALLSTROM, FBI: We're not in too much of a different posture than we were last night. We're not here to take over the investigation yet. We're not here to declare that this is a terrorist event, as has been speculated in the news media. And I also can't confirm or deny a lot of the theories and speculation that is in the print. We continue to build the team. We're bringing in more experts. We're conducting what I would now term a massive typical investigation here. I think we have multiple theories up on the board. We're running all these theories out. We're not going to get discouraged on any particular theory because something takes it down a peg. We're going to continue to look at all these things. That's the right thing to do. We're going to look at it as fast as we can look at it. We're going to bring those theories to the forefront that seem to have the most credibility. We're going to operate this the way we operate any major investigation.
REPORTER: Is this not a criminal investigation, at this point?
JAMES KALLSTROM: It certainly is. We're looking at this as a criminal investigation. That's right.
REPORTER: So, in fact, sir, you have taken over from the NTSB?
JAMES KALLSTROM: No, we have not, no. But I'm not going to dicker with you on the semantics of that, but we have not, no.
REPORTER: Of all the theories that you're looking at, is one beginning to emerge as most promising?
JAMES KALLSTROM: No, no, not one in particular. We're running all the theories, most of which you could guess what they are. We're running all those theories. We're not ready to focus on any one yet.
REPORTER: Have you eliminated any? Have you eliminated any that have already been published?
JAMES KALLSTROM: No, I haven't eliminated anything. We're going to look for residue. We're going to look for certain streaking patterns. We're going to look for the way the metal is shaped or fragmented, if it is. We don't know that. We're going to look at all those things.
REPORTER: Have you gotten any physical evidence yet that there is a terrorist--have you gotten any physical hint?
JAMES KALLSTROM: Well, we have a lot of hints. I mean, the day we started this thing we got a million hints.
REPORTER: Physical hint.
JAMES KALLSTROM: Uh, nothing that's going to put us over the top to declare this yet.
ROBERT FRANCIS: The most important thing is to get those recorders, that's critical, and then, you know, we will--we don't know what we need at this point, so, you know, we'll be interested in control surfaces. We'll be interested in the engines particularly. We'll be interested in cargo holds.
REPORTER: Can you talk about the Navy's role? Is the Navy here in what form and--
ROBERT FRANCIS: There are some representatives of the Navy here. There are others that are coming.
REPORTER: The divers are coming from what agencies?
ROBERT FRANCIS: Well, the divers that were out there this morning are from the New York City Harbor Police, I believe, the city of New York.
REPORTER: But ultimately, will they be doing the brunt of the diving, or are Navy divers expected, or--
ROBERT FRANCIS: That, uh, that remains to be determined, but I think we certainly had the impression and everybody believes that those divers that were out there this morning knew very much what they were doing--
REPORTER: Do you have any--
ROBERT FRANCIS: --competent folks.
MR. LEHRER: The weather is expected to clear up tomorrow, and the search will resume. Still to come on the NewsHour tonight, Olympic security, White House security, real security in a real democracy, and some Friday night politics.