FBI Finds Trace of Explosive but Officials Can't Say Whether Bomb or Missile Destroyed Flight 800
1996, New York Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Investigators have finally found scientific evidence that an explosive device went off inside the passenger cabin of Trans World Airlines Flight 800, senior federal officials said Thursday.
Chemists at the FBI crime laboratory in Washington have found traces of PETN, a chemical in plastic explosives, on a piece of wreckage retrieved from the jet's passenger cabin between Rows 17 and 27, according to three senior officials investigators. They spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Although the new finding provides evidence that the Boeing 747 was destroyed by an explosive device, a senior official noted that PETN is used in the warheads of many surface-to-air missiles as well as bombs. That makes it impossible, for now, to know for sure which type of explosive device destroyed the jet.
Nonetheless, the discovery meets the FBI's previously stated standard for declaring that the plane was brought down by a criminal act. In loss of life, the downing of TWA Flight 800, killing all 230 people aboard, w ould stand as the deadliest crime in U.S. history.
For weeks, criminal investigators have said they would need positive findings of explosive residue before they could conclude that a bomb, not mechanical malfunction, destroyed the jet shortly after it left New York City's Kennedy International Airport on the evening of July 17.
But senior investigators said Thursday that they are not ready to declare that the crash was the result of a criminal act until they can say for sure whether the explosion was caused by a bomb or a missile. A senior investigator said federal authorities could never bring any suspects to trial until they have answered that question.
He and other senior officials said they still hoped to find additional evidence as salvage workers continue to retrieve more wreckage from the Atlantic Ocean. They are particularly interested in finding metal fragments showing what investigators call shock waves - physical damage left by a blast that tells investigators what type of device exploded.
Results Kept Secret
The new, confirmed test result comes from part of a seat, one official said, from the section of the passenger cabin where investigators have said the blast began, somewhere between Rows 17 and 27.
The test was conducted as long as two weeks ago, investigators said. But instead of announcing the finding then, FBI officials decided to take extraordinary precautions to keep the finding secret as long as possible. …