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Crime or Accident? FBI Searches for Evidence

July 19, 1996 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ From the bottom of the continental shelf to the highest levels of Washington, Americans searched Friday for evidence that the nation’s second-deadliest aviation disaster was also its deadliest terrorist attack.

The FBI stopped short of declaring the crash of TWA Flight 800 a crime, although the bureau announced a ``massive″ investigation to find out what caused the huge explosion that brought down the 747.

``We have a lot of things that look like accident, a lot of things that look like terrorism,″ said James Kallstrom, head of the FBI’s New York office.


Assuming the disaster may have been deliberate, agents began contacting informants in the terrorist underworld, according to a federal investigator who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

``It would be foolish not to be out there seeking every bit of information we can, from any corner,″ the source said.

Not until more evidence is found, Kallstrom told reporters at a briefing, would the FBI take control of the investigation from the National Transportation and Safety Board. He urged people to call a toll-free number with tips, and gave the Internet address for the FBI home page.

Kallstrom said the bureau was pursuing many theories. One was the possibility that a surface-to-air missile _ perhaps fired from a boat _ brought the plane down. Radar detected a blip merging with the jet shortly before the explosion, something that could indicate a missile hit.

But Pentagon officials, speaking Friday on condition of anonymity, said that given the planes altitude and the range of hand-held missiles, the theory is highly unlikely. Also, they said government analysts have studied several radar reports of the area and found the blip to be false.

Rain, wind and fog hampered efforts to recover the wreckage that Kallstrom said might contain vital clues to what destroyed the plane Wednesday night and killed all 230 people aboard.

NTSB Vice Chairman Robert Francis said divers did not go into the water Friday. Seas were so choppy that some search vessel crew members were getting sick. ``It’s tough stuff out there,″ he said.

Sonar detected a 15-foot spike on the ocean floor _ possibly part of the plane, Francis said. But the search had to be suspended for fear the sonar equipment, which trail on cables behind the ship, would be lost in the storm.


There was no sign Friday of the plane’s ``black boxes,″ which record pilots’ conversations and the plane’s operations.

Flight 800′s 230 deaths ranked behind the 273 killed in a DC-10 crash at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in 1979. The nation’s worst terrorist attack was last year’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, where 168 died.

Meanwhile, relatives gathered at a hotel at Kennedy Airport for the heartbreaking process of identifying their loved ones and collecting their remains. Some walked from the elevator to the lobby in groups of three or four, holding each other.

They seemed unconcerned for the moment with the question that occupied the rest of the nation.

``Whether it was an act or terrorism or mechanical failure, doesn’t make any difference,″ said Joe Lychner, who lost his wife and two daughters. ``What’s important is to put a face to the tragedy ... It wasn’t just a plane crash. There were people in there, good people.″

Rabbi Alvin Poplack, an airport chaplain, worked before with relatives after airline crashes. Still, he appeared shaken as he took a break from counseling families.

``The families’ reactions are very wide-ranging. They go from distraught to numbness,″ he said. ``Sometimes they look like they’re fine, and a word or image can set them off again.″

Suffolk County Medical Examiner Charles Wetli said that most of the victims suffered fatal injuries in the air and that while some may have been conscious when they hit the water, drowning was an unlikely cause of death.

``It looks like a great many of them died upon impact with the water,″ he said. ``That is not to say that serious injury or death did not occur in the sky itself.″

Most suffered blunt injuries ``like those in a super high-speed car crash,″ he said. One or two appeared to have inhaled water, but that was probably a reflex action, he said.

Many of the victims were wealthy, distinguished or accomplished. Among them: Rodolphe Merieux, son of Alain Merieux, president of the French pharmaceutical company Merieux Laboratories. He was to fly to France on Friday, but instead took Flight 800 to surprise his parents.

Other victims included fashion photographer Rico Puhlman, interior designer Jed Johnson, French guitarist Marcel Dadi, philanthropist Judith Connolly Delouvrier and Charles ``Hank″ Gray III, president of Midland Financial Group.

Jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter lost his wife, Anna Maria, and jazz singer Jon Lucien lost his daughter, Dalila.


EDITOR’S NOTE _ AP reporters Judie Glave, Pat Milton, Larry Neumeister and Katherine Roth and Tom Hays contributed to this report.