EAST MORICHES, N.Y. (AP) _ The coroner said today he doubts that TWA Flight 800 passengers experienced the horror of a free fall and thinks most suffered an almost instantaneous death.
``I don’t think anybody was conscious as they fell from 13,000 feet to the water. When the explosion occurred, some may have had a sudden panic attack for maybe one or two seconds. But I believe they were all totally unconscious or dead by the time they hit the water,″ said Dr. Charles Wetli, the Suffolk County medical examiner in charge of autopsies conducted on 196 crash victims.
``The majority lost consciousness instantly when the blast went off,″ he said.
In an interview at his office, Wetli said passengers displayed two kinds of injuries: those consistent with an explosion or those caused by a massive change in speed, cabin pressure and altitude.
The blast occurred when the plane was traveling at 400 mph at about 13,700 feet the evening of July 17. The Boeing 747 broke apart, dropped to about 9,000 feet when it erupted into flames and fell into the Atlantic about 10 miles off Long Island. All 230 people aboard were killed and 196 of the bodies have been recovered and examined by Wetli’s office, including one announced today.
``The plane was going at 400 mph, it suddenly changes direction, the fuselage is open so all this air and pressure is going into the cabin, and there’s a sudden decompression,″ Wetli said. ``All of this combined would render almost everyone instantly unconscious.″
He likened it to a car smashing into a brick wall at 400 mph. ``It’s an extremely violent whiplash, a separation of the skull from the spinal cord, an instant loss of consciousness.″
Technically, some victims deaths were attributed to drowning, but Wetli said they would have been unconscious when they entered the water.
Wetli said investigators were analyzing injuries suffered by passengers in different areas of the plane to see if anything could be learned from them.
On Wednesday, a mammoth, fire-damaged section of airplane wing was raised from the ocean floor, raising as well the hopes of investigators trying to crack the mystery of Flight 800′s demise.
Early this morning, a barge _ its precious contents from the crash site hidden beneath a tarpaulin _ arrived at the Coast Guard command center for truck transport to a hangar.
It was unclear whether it was a piece of the wing: Investigators said the 75-foot section would have to be cut in two before it could be moved.
``That wing is an enormous and important piece of wreckage,″ said Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Earlier, crews managed to bring ashore the cockpit’s sheared-off windshield, a piece of fuselage with nine windows, and a stainless-steel toilet, among other items.
Investigators’ prime theory is that a bomb was placed in the front cargo hold where passenger luggage was stored. But they have not ruled out mechanical malfunction or a missile.
Francis said two engines, and a piece of a third, probably would be raised soon.
If mechanical failure brought down the Boeing 747, investigators have said the most likely scenario would be an explosion set off by vapors in an empty fuel tank at the center of the plane.
Investigators have found no evidence to back up the malfunction theory, but a small fire started by a leaking fuel pump motor on a 747 in Singapore last year prompted the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday to announce a proposed rule requiring inspections of the Boeing motors.
Still attached to the wing raised Wednesday were seven of the eight fuse pins that hold the engines on, Francis said. The pins are designed to break and allow the engines to fall away in case of trouble, but the attached pins could mean the engines separated in some other way.
Francis estimated that 30 percent of the aircraft has been retrieved so far.
Meanwhile, the top FBI agent in the probe said that if terrorists destroyed Flight 800, they delivered their message _ whether or not they took responsibility for it.
``It doesn’t matter whether anyone claimed credit or not. The event in itself is a public statement,″ Assistant FBI Director James K. Kallstrom said in an interview with The Associated Press.
``No one claimed credit for Pan Am 103,″ he said, referring to the 1988 bombing of the Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.
In the wake of the crash, the U.S. Postal Service announced Wednesday that it is changing a procedure to increase the security of commercial airlines carrying mail. Starting Aug. 16, people who want to mail items weighing more than a pound will have to show up at the post office in person.