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FBI investigator says bomb caused TWA crash, then backs off

Unidentified sound heard on cockpit recorder

cockpit voice recorder

July 25, 1996
Web posted at: 8:40 p.m. EDT

EAST MORICHES, New York (CNN) -- The assistant director of the FBI said point-blank Thursday that the explosion aboard TWA Flight 800 "was caused by some sort of bomb," but then said nothing had been ruled out, including mechanical failure.

James Kallstrom made the comment in response to a question about whether any of the three main theories as to the cause of the explosion and crash that killed 230 people could now be discounted.

"We haven't discounted any theories," he said. "We're still here. We know there was a catastrophic explosion. It's caused by some sort of bomb, obviously."

Kallstrom hesitated briefly, then went on to say, "We're not further describing how that, where that would be, whether it was carried on or something hit the plane from outside and caused the plane to explode, or a mechanical problem that has nothing to do with terrorism or criminality."

That left it unclear just how close the FBI may be to declaring a bomb did indeed bring down the plane. But this was the first time Kallstrom has made such a strong statement about what may have caused the July 17 disaster off Long Island.

By Thursday evening, the bodies of 126 victims had been recovered; 111 of those had been positively identified and 107 families had been notified, authorities said.

map of search area

Mysterious noise

Investigators have listened to the cockpit voice recorder and made a preliminary examination of the flight data recorder recovered early Thursday from the Atlantic Ocean.

"There was nothing audible to the ear or visible to the eye -- clues to what happened," said Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

All four channels on the cockpit voice recorder recorded a fraction-of-a-second unidentified sound just prior to the end of the 30-minute tape, which automatically rewinds itself. Francis declined to describe the noise.

Up to that moment in the tape, everything was normal with the flight crew not talking about anything other than routine matters, Francis said.

"All four channels recorded sound."

icon 323K AIFF or WAV sound

"No reports of dozens of bodies"

icon 145K AIFF or WAV sound

"We have yet to remove any
serious pieces of wreckage"

icon 365K AIFF or WAV sound

Kallstrom said investigators were pleased to have the boxes, and not necessarily disappointed that they haven't yielded more preliminary information. "It moves the ball down the road," he said.

Francis said a preliminary analysis of the flight data recorder was continuing. This particular model of recorder kept track of 19 parameters, including such data as the altitude of the plane, its rate of acceleration and which direction the plane was heading.

The last 2 seconds of the tape were contaminated by being immersed in water, but Francis said it was "expected that all data recorded will be recovered." He did not indicate whether there was anything unusual on the data recorder.

Both the boxes, known as "black boxes" even though they're orange, were located late Wednesday night beneath the USS Grasp, the primary Navy search ship. Divers recovered them in the wee hours of Thursday morning.

Navy divers searching through the wreckage discovered the black boxes after literally stepping on the orange, hardened container that houses them, Navy Lt. J.D. Hernandez said.

They then asked crew members on the USS Grasp to send down the remotely operated camera to give investigators above water an opportunity to inspect their discovery. The box was raised to the surface shortly after that.

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