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Investigators still at odds over jet crash

Six days after a Vienna-bound jet airliner mysteriously disintegrated in midair over the Thai jungle, fingers of blame are being pointed in every direction. Yet flimsy and fleeting evidence supporting the various theories of what caused the disaster has left officials and investigators from several nations at odds over a solution. The twin-engine plane burst apart in a fiery explosion 16 minutes after takeoff from Bangkok without issuing any distress signal. Autopsy results showed that many of the 223 people aboard died with fists tightly clenched, indicating that they were aware of their impending doom and were overcome by fear.

Mechanical problems, bombs and bad weather have been raised as possible causes of the crash; only the last has been ruled out as a cause.

"There are all kinds of statements being thrown around, and not a damn one of them holds water," said one participant in the investigation.

Soon after the crash, the head of Thailand's airport authority, Air Chief Marshal Somboon Rahong, said the jet had flown into a severe thunderstorm. No bomb, he declared, could have gotten past the Bangkok airport's "strict security measures." But Thai authorities soon acknowledged that the plane wasn't in a storm and that luggage in the cargo hold had been put on board without being X-rayed.

Several bombing theories emerged, and most evaporated. By Friday, Thai officials were making much of the fact that one of the plane's engines had been discovered badly burned while the other was relatively unscathed. Somboon said the crash was the result of an engine spontaneously catching fire and was "absolutely not a case of sabotage."

But a top Western investigator said an examination of the damaged engine established almost beyond doubt that the fire that engulfed it was a result of the crash, not the cause.

One of the few solid leads to emerge last week concerns a former airline employee who, after being fired, threatened to bomb the airline.

Lauda officials, obviously sensitive to the perception that more of the company's flights may be targeted, have denied that any such employee exists. But Peter Blumauer, a criminal investigator sent here by the Austrian Interior Ministry, said he has been told authoritatively that the story is true, and there is a search on for the man.

Still, Blumauer said he agrees with the Thais that a bomb probably wasn't the cause.

A final verdict will have to await an examination of the airliner's cockpit recorder and flight data recorder, and pieces of the wreck are still being found in the dense bamboo jungle northwest of Bangkok.