No evidence of terrorism in TWA crash, U.S. officials say
140 bodies recovered off New York's Long Island
July 18, 1996
(CNN) -- President Clinton warned Thursday against speculation into the cause of the fiery Atlantic Ocean crash of a Paris-bound TWA 747 jet minutes after takeoff from New York's JFK International Airport. And members of his administration said there was no immediate indication of terrorist involvement.
"We have no evidence that would indicate the cause of this accident," President Clinton told reporters at the White House late Thursday morning. He asked the public not to jump to conclusions about the cause of the crash. (170K AIFF or WAV sound)
"Let's wait until we have the evidence," he said during a brief news conference carried live on CNN. Clinton also thanked the hundreds of people involved in the search and rescue effort.
About 140 bodies have been recovered from TWA Flight 800, which carried 230 people, airline spokesman Mark Abels said in New York, citing 212 passengers and 18 crew members. He said earlier reports of 228 people on board had been incorrect. There were no signs of survivors.
A total of 35 people on the flight were airline personnel, Abels said, telling reporters that some of those listed as passengers were TWA flight personnel on their way to assignments in Europe.
"This is a personal tragedy for all of us," TWA President and Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Erickson said in New York. (170K AIFF or WAV sound) He thanked "all of the New Yorkers who have come to the aid of our victims and our families in this search."
Dropped 'like a rock'
A search for possible survivors included 28 rescue vessels and five aircraft, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jim McPherson told CNN during a live interview. He said the search will continue until a 240 square mile area of the ocean has been thoroughly covered.
Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon announced that the Navy will provide divers and specialized equipment, including sonar, to help in the search for bodies and 747's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.
The jumbo jet dropped from radar screens about 8:40 p.m. Wednesday night before crashing off the south shore of New York's Long Island. Eyewitnesses reported an explosion.
"We saw a huge red, orange sphere just erupt," said Sven Faret, a private pilot on a pleasure flight who saw the explosion off to his right from the air. He talked to CNN's Gary Tuchman in a live interview from East Moriches, New York. (188K AIFF or WAV sound)
Faret said he and a co-pilot were about 11 miles from Flight 800, flying at 8,500 feet, about a thousand feet higher than the doomed passenger jet. It went "straight down, like a rock," he said. (222K AIFF or WAV sound)
Terrorism played down
The FBI issued a statement saying the FBI/New York City Police Department Joint Terrorist Task Force would "assume leadership of the investigation" but added the FBI "is not prepared to declare the incident to be terrorist related."
In Washington, Attorney General Janet Reno said that two calls claiming responsibility had been received after the crash, adding that there are "no indications" of terrorism at this time. White House spokesman Mike McCurry also said there are "no credible claims of responsibility."
One of the calls mentioned by Reno was received at Tampa, Florida, television station WTSP, from a man who identified himself as a member of a "Jihad," a station official said.
Jihad is a word used by Islamic militant groups and means "Holy War." The WTSP official said the caller gave no name and offered no motive.
We don't know if this was a terrorist act," Bacon told reporters. He said no U.S. military facilities had been placed on heightened alert because of the air disaster.
"We have no reason to believe there was a threat against the aircraft," Abels said.
Departure delay explained
He said Flight 800 left the departure gate at JFK Airport at 8:02 p.m. Wednesday, took off at 8:19 p.m. and dropped from radar screens at 8:48 p.m. He gave two reasons for a one- hour delay in the takeoff: a malfunctioning piece of baggage- loading equipment and the reloading of luggage belonging to a passenger who was late in boarding the plane.
Although the bag in question had been checked in, it was removed when the passenger did not immediately show up for the flight -- a standard procedure. When the passenger finally arrived, the bag was put back on board. Abels said each of the delays took about 30 minutes.
TWA responds to Giuliani criticism
Abels defended TWA's handling of notifying relatives of the crash victims. In a telephone interview with CNN's Leon Harris, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani charged that an unnamed high-level TWA official in New York went home instead of attending to the needs of family members. (170K AIFF or WAV sound) However, he praised other TWA employees who came in to assist families.
Giuliani, interviewed 14 hours after the crash, said he was also dissatisfied that TWA had not yet released the passenger list.
At mid-day Thursday, Abels released the names of the four cockpit crew members aboard TWA Flight 800 -- Capt. Steve Snyder of Stratford, Connecticut; Capt. Ralph Kevorkian, of Garden Grove, California; flight engineer Richard Campbell of Ridgefield, Connecticut and flight engineer Oliver Crick of St. Louis.
Abels would not release the names of passengers pending notification of their closest relatives.
The notification process was handled "with the highest level of management attention," Abels responded. (232K AIFF or WAV sound) "We wish we could do it faster. But it's more important that we do it right".
Giuliani, who spent much of the night with Flight 800 crash victims' relatives, said he was aware of "a few cases" where passengers booked on the doomed flight decided to take different flights.
© 1996 Cable News Network, Inc.
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