Ghastly though it was, the Atlanta explosion had the perverse virtue of being clear-cut terrorism: an obvious bomb, identifiable victims, even fingerprints to dust for. Those caught up in the tragedy of TWA 800, which fell into the sea killing all 230 aboard, lacked such certainties. Grieving relatives wanted to take home their deceased. The U.S. Government and much of the general public wanted to know whether one of America's commercial airliners had been blown out of the sky by terrorists. These questions, during a grueling and sometimes chaotic week, seemed at times incompatible--urgencies with different priorities. Investigators looked for bodies and for signs of a monstrous crime. They found fewer of both than many had hoped, but perhaps more than could reasonably be expected, given the formidable obstacles to discoveries of any sort.
Again and again, some 100 divers returned to an underwater hell: the silty tract roughly twice the size of Rhode Island containing the human remains and the wreckage of TWA Flight 800, about 10 miles off the coast of Long Island, New York, and 120 ft. below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. At that depth, the water temperature dropped to 50 degrees, and pressure crunched face masks painfully against foreheads and chins. Visibility was limited to a few feet, but the visions were nightmarish. Scattered shards of the doomed airliner sprouted myriad electric wires and cords waving medusa-like in the undersea currents. Some of the bodies, when discovered, swayed gently to the same tidal rhythms.
The divers and the crews of the flotilla of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels patrolling the crash site--plus everyone else involved in the investigation--got a morale boost late last Wednesday night, almost exactly a week after TWA Flight 800 took its fiery plunge into the sea. Called away to the telephone just after finishing a chicken-piccata dinner at a Manhattan hotel, National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman Robert Francis returned a short while later with a brief smile and some promising news: the plane's two black boxes had been recovered.
Amid surging hopes that the cause of the crash would soon be revealed, both boxes--the cockpit-voice and flight-data recorders--were flown immediately to the NTSB lab in Washington, where experts spent much of Thursday in preliminary analysis. The flight-data recorder, which automatically tracks a number of the plane's navigational and mechanical processes, had been partly damaged by salt water, though officials believe much of the encoded information can eventually be salvaged.
But the cockpit-voice recorder quickly yielded only a tantalizing enigma: what Francis called a "fraction-of-a-second sound" 111/2 minutes into the flight, followed by silence. This tiny glitch of noise reinforced the notion--privately held by many government officials almost from the beginning--that Flight 800 was brought down by a bomb or even a missile. During a Friday- afternoon news conference, Francis revealed that the NTSB was consulting with investigators of what proved to be bombings of an Air India jet in 1985 and of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 to see if the sounds on the TWA voice recorder match up with those recovered from the other two downed planes.