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Second test shows no sign of bomb residue

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July 23, 1996
Web posted at: 6:10 p.m. EDT

EAST MORICHES, New York (CNN) -- A second series of tests conducted by the FBI detected no trace of explosives on a piece of wing from TWA Flight 800, senior Clinton administration sources said Tuesday.

The sources confirmed that initial field tests by agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms did detect traces of a chemical residue, which would suggest an explosive device detonated on the plane.

However, according to an aviation expert consulted by CNN, the Egis machine used by the ATF is not the most reliable, sometimes producing false positive results.

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Further tests on the wing segment will be conducted at FBI laboratories in Washington, but sources said it could be several days before the tests are complete.

Earlier Tuesday, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta told reporters that investigators believe they are "close to finding out what happened" in the crash of TWA Flight 800.

He said some chemical residues had been found on some of the bodies and plane parts, but more testing will have to be done to determine what those residues are. Explosive residue would strongly suggest sabotage was involved in the jetliner's fiery plunge Wednesday into the Atlantic Ocean, which killed all 230 passengers and crew on board.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Navy ship equipped with sophisticated sonar, grappling equipment and a robotic submarine was poised off Long Island on Tuesday as crews prepared to recover more bodies and search for clues amid newly discovered wreckage from the flight.

Recovery teams Tuesday combed a search area that has grown to nearly twice the size of the state of Rhode Island, but at midday little progress was reported.

Clouds and rain returned to the area Tuesday, but the winds that hampered the first two days of the search after Wednesday's crash off Long Island were calmed.


"This weather is not going to bother us as long as we have visibility," said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral John Linnon.
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Sonar detected a 10-mile-long debris field 20 miles off shore on Monday, and divers took to the water to investigate. The discovery was the first significant underwater find since the Boeing 747 went down in a ball of fire shortly after takeoff last Wednesday from New York's JFK International Airport.

In that debris field, recovery crews found six more bodies of the 230 passengers and crew aboard the jetliner. At midday Tuesday, 112 bodies had been recovered, and the Suffolk County Medical Examiner's office said that 76 had been identified. Sixty-six families of those victims had been notified of the identification.


To assist in the recovery operation, the U.S. Navy has dispatched the USS Oak Hill from its base in Norfolk, Virginia, to serve as a command post for the operation. The Oak Hill is capable of carrying large pieces of aircraft away from the crash site, and was expected to arrive Wednesday.

Other developments

  • Senior administration officials said an FBI test completed Tuesday on the piece of wing from the TWA plane turned up negative for traces of explosives. But more tests have been ordered and it could be several days before those tests are complete.

    Investigators continued Tuesday to dispute reports that a chemical traces indicative of an explosive device had been detected in earlier tests on the recovered piece.

    Sources told CNN that tests conducted by a sophisticated "Egis" machine detected the residue, but said also that the tests were inconclusive.

    The portion of wing that supposedly held the residue was transported to Washington for further testing.

  • Federal involvement stepped up Tuesday as President Clinton sent James Lee Witt, the Federal Emergency Management Agency director, to New York to assess the situation. Witt was to meet with National Transportation Safety Board, local and state officials, and to report directly to the president.

  • Sources at the Department of Transportation said Tuesday that Transportation Secretary Federico Peña would meet with TWA president Jeffrey Erickson on Wednesday to discuss the crash and the airline's response to it. Family members and some politicians have been highly critical of TWA's handling of the crisis.

  • TWA President Jeffrey Erickson defended the airline against the complaints. Mechanical failure, he said, had not been ruled out as a cause for the crash, but was looking less and less likely.
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