Aftermath: Flight 800 Crash: THE SEARCH FOR SABOTAGE


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If government agencies involved in the investigation stick to their announced preference for physical rather than circumstantial evidence, an answer to what actually--as opposed to what almost certainly--occurred aboard Flight 800 could be a long time in coming: 10 days of searching after the crash recovered only a little more than 1% of the plane. Analysis of even that tiny bit of evidence prompted a flurry of confusing news stories. Early in the week, CNN reported that a mobile vapor detector had picked up a very faint positive reading for explosive residue on a piece of a wing. But when the piece was flown to the FBI lab in Washington and subjected to more tests, the final results were negative.

News reports also asserted that investigators had found "pitting" on pieces of the plane's skin. Pitting is often seen in metal subjected to the high temperatures and velocities of an explosive blast. But in this case, sources tell TIME, it could simply have been caused by parts banging together as they fell. The FBI and NTSB want more samples before they assert that the flight was bombed.

The announcement, if and when it comes, that someone did place explosives aboard the flight will not necessarily segue smoothly into a swiftly paced whodunit. An hour after Flight 800 went down on July 17, the CIA's operations center at the agency's Langley, Virginia, headquarters summoned senior officials back to their offices. Within hours, secret cables went out to every CIA station in the world, ordering case officers to hit the streets and begin shaking down sources for leads. But there are many to check. Sources tell Time that the CIA has begun investigating the other stops that the TWA plane made up to two days before it left the Athens airport for New York City. That is because terrorists can now build timers to explode a bomb as much as 48 hours later.

Such long-range problems seemed beside the immediate point to many of the relatives of TWA Flight 800's victims. Housed in the Ramada Plaza Hotel near New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport, where the fatal flight began, they spent the week mourning their dead and growing restive as the slow, difficult recovery of bodies from the crash site dragged on. Early in the week, contradictory progress reports from the county, city, state and federal teams investigating the disaster, relayed by a host of concerned public officials, drove some of the relatives past frustration into outrage. During a near mutinous news conference involving some of the relatives on Tuesday, Max Dadi, who lost his brother Marcel, a celebrated French musician, in the crash, cried out, "We don't care about what caused everything! We want our bodies!"

On Thursday, President Clinton and the First Lady visited the relatives at the hotel. The Clintons talked with groups and individuals among the 400 people present, hearing occasional complaints and being shown snapshots of still missing loved ones. In his speech to the group at large, the President said he was not happy with the job that had been done in keeping family members informed about the investigation. He promised that henceforth all news would be coordinated and then conveyed through the office of James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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