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What happened to Flight 800?

recovered black box

July 19, 1996
Web posted at: 12:30 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Officials repeatedly warned Thursday against speculating on the cause of the crash of TWA Flight 800 -- but people asked the question, anyway.

Investigators were focusing on three possibilities, including the chance that a bomb exploded on the Boeing 747.

A large bomb could have destroyed the plane; a smaller one could have set flammable materials on fire and triggered the explosion that dropped the plane into the Atlantic Ocean Wednesday night. All 230 people aboard were killed.

When Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up in December 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland, it took investigators and forensic scientists over a week to assemble enough evidence to conclude that a bomb was exploded on the plane.

When bombs explode, they leave a chemical residue on everything in their vicinity and shoot debris through the air that punctures metal -- splaying it outwards instead of slicing it.

Investigators of this week's crash also are considering the possibility that the 747 suffered an engine mishap like the one Delta Air Lines saw earlier in July. The engine disintegrated, and its blades hit the plane's fuselage, killing a female passenger and her child.

While this possibility has not been ruled out, officials point out that there was no explosion in that incident.

The final possibility: that an object such as a missile hit the plane. Sources at the Pentagon told CNN they were looking closely at this possibility, because radar records reviewed by military officials showed a mystery blip in the vicinity of the TWA flight path.

However, officials later said the extra signal was typical of an electronic glitch commonly seen on radar.

Too soon to tell

Francis

Officials stress they are far from drawing any conclusions, and no one else should, either.

Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said everything from a large section of a wing to seats, panels and insulation have been found among the wreckage.

"Certainly experts can look at pieces of metal or cloth or wreckage and find evidence that tells you if it's an explosion or not," he said.

FBI agents are interviewing airline workers who serviced the 747 in the hours before it crashed. A team of federal agents was dispatched to Kennedy Airport to interview baggage handlers, caterers and others about what they might have seen before the plane took off.

A truck loaded with lab equipment was parked near the scene to help with preliminary tests of debris and human remains.

"We have no evidence at this point that this was not an accident," Francis said. "So the NTSB, as long as this is considered an accident, will be in charge of the investigation." (504K AIFF or WAV sound)

Francis said if evidence is found that indicates the crash might be a criminal act, the FBI would take charge with the NTSB acting as advisers.

'Black boxes' sought

sonar

Neither the plane's flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder have been located, although investigators said they shouldn't be hard to retrieve. The plane crashed in waters about 120 feet deep, and the Navy planned to send scuba divers and specialized sonar equipment to the scene.

The Navy uses two types of sonar to find the recorders. If their pinging devices activate on contact with the water, one type of sonar, towed by a boat, will give their general locations. Another hand-held unit will zero in on them.

The other type of sonar, side-scan sonar, will help map the underwater debris field, "both to give a picture of how the debris settled after the crash and also help locate pieces of the plane that have settled in the water," Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon said.

All the equipment has been shipped from Maryland, along with a miniature remote-operated vehicle that can shoot photographs and videotape underwater.

Correspondent Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.

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