Explosion in the Darkness

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As rescue teams continued the grim task of recovering the bodies of the 230 people aboard TWA Flight 800, the causes of the catastrophic explosion that sent the 747 plunging into the Atlantic off the coast of New York Wednesday night remained unknown. Despite the extraordinary level of U.S. concern over possible terrorism during the Olympics, which begin Friday, President Clinton cautioned Americans to refrain from speculation on the causes of the disaster. "We do not know what caused this tragedy," he said in a White House press conference. "We have no evidence on this flight yet that would indicate the cause of the accident." Though no jumbo jet has ever exploded in mid-air except in cases of sabotage, experts said it was still too early to rule out an engine explosion or other major technical failure. These reports were underscored by an early eyewitness report that at least one of the victims was wearing a fully-inflated life jacket, which would indicate that the passengers had some warning of the impending disaster. While families waited to identify the more than 100 victims pulled from the sea overnight, hundreds of investigators from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the National Transportation Safety Board and other agencies were searching a hundred-mile stretch of coastline temporary classified as a crime scene for any clues that might reveal the reasons for the crash. TIME Online's Lisa Granatstein reports from the crash site that investigators were beginning to recover large pieces of the airliner, including the emergency exit chutes that deploy automatically when a plane crashes. Several diplomatic pouches were recovered overnight. The flight is a regular commuting run for diplomats from the United Nations and State Department employees. Granatstein adds that about a dozen packages recovered from the site this morning were being treated with extreme caution as contaminated material; rumors that the packages contained HIV-contaminated blood could not be confirmed. A heavy shipboard construction crane arrived at the site early this morning for use in recovering the wreckage, which sank in some 120 feet of water. The 8:40 p.m. explosion, minutes after the passenger jet departed JFK airport en route to Paris, was witnessed by large numbers of coastal residents, who described a fireball that separated into two large pieces, plunging into the Atlantic. Many people in the beach communities near the Hamptons on Long Island at first mistook the flames in the sky for fireworks, until they realized the explosion was far too large. Among the first of hundreds of rescue aircraft, ships and helicopters to reach the site was a National Guard C-130 practicing search-and-rescue procedures nearby, whose pilot witnessed the horrific crash and immediately circled the area, identifying the wreckage and reporting back to his commanders. Rescue craft arriving overnight from as far away as Cape Cod, Massachusetts were supplemented by dozens of private boats borrowed by rescue teams frantically hoping to save some lives. As fishermen and other local residents helped recover the bodies of the victims, a temporary morgue was set up near the little town of East Moriches close to the crash site. Local officials cautioned residents to report any wreckage or bodies washing ashore in the next day or so, but not to touch anything that may serve as evidence that could explain what made the TWA jumbo jet suddenly disintegrate in the darkness. - Janice Castro with Lisa Granatstein