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Traces of explosive found on TWA crash debris

August 23, 1996
Web posted at: 7:45 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Minute traces of an explosive substance "of unknown origin" were found on wreckage from TWA Flight 800, but investigators have no evidence to prove a bomb caused the jet to crash, the top FBI investigator said Friday.


Also Friday, another body was retrieved from the underwater wreckage, bringing the number of bodies recovered to 210 of the 230 people killed in the July 17 crash.

Theories that a bomb, a missile or massive mechanical failure brought down the plane off New York's Long Island were still being considered, James Kallstrom, assistant FBI director, said at a news briefing.

icon "Based upon all the scientific and forensic evidence analyzed to date, we cannot conclude that TWA Flight 800 crashed as a result of an explosive device," Kallstrom said. "The mere fact that there are chemical traces is just not enough." (502K AIFF or WAV sound)

The New York Times reported Friday the FBI had concluded that either a bomb on board or a surface-to-air missile had downed the Boeing 747, because traces of PETN explosive chemicals had been found in the wreckage by FBI scientists.

icon Reading a prepared statement, Kallstrom said it was possible that the PETN could have been brought on the plane by a passenger and was not part of a bomb. The existence of the chemical alone was not enough to prove a terrorist act, he said. (459K AIFF or WAV sound)

"Other things like scarring or pinging (on the plane's wreckage) would be the type of things we would be looking for," Kallstrom said. "We don't have the preponderance, the critical mass of information that tells us what happened."

Given the lack of evidence, Kallstrom said, the National Transportation Safety Board would remain in charge of the investigation. The FBI will take over only if conclusive proof of a criminal act is found, he said.

Navy Rear Adm. Edward Kristensen said there were no explosives on the USS Grapple and Grasp, the two main search-and-salvage vessels combing the Atlantic Ocean for TWA crash debris, that could have contaminated the wreckage.

icon PETN is often used in blasting caps or small detonators, explosives expert Jack McGeorge said on CNN Friday during a live interview. But he said it would not be the "majority explosive" in a bomb or missile warhead. (179K AIFF or WAV sound)

icon McGeorge described PETN as a "common" explosive that is "typically used together with other things." (179K AIFF or WAV sound)


NASA awaits fuel tank pieces

The chemical PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) was found on the right side of the forward passenger cabin between rows 15 and 25, a source told CNN.

Rows 17 to 28 in the coach section of the doomed jetliner have been under intense investigative scrutiny for the past week or so because of fire damage where the passenger cabin meets the right wing. Investigators have said the explosion occurred in the right front section of the jetliner.

The Paris-bound jet exploded and crashed into the Atlantic just minutes after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

The NTSB enlisted experts from the space agency NASA Thursday to inspect fuel tank pumps, fuel probes and the fuel control panel from the TWA jetliner to determine whether there was a catastrophic mechanical malfunction.

These same experts analyzed pieces from the exploded fuel tank of the space shuttle Challenger that blew up shortly after launch on January 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

A NASA spokesman said pieces of TWA wreckage were expected to arrive at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, late Friday.

A team of NTSB and FAA experts were accompanying the fuel tank components to Huntsville. The NASA spokesman said its experts will be working with the safety team seven days a week to test and analyze the wreckage.

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