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TWA jet explodes // 229 people are aboard when it plunges into the sea

A TWA jetliner with 229 people aboard exploded in a fireball shortly after taking off for Paris and plunged into the waters off Long Island on Wednesday night. There was no sign of survivors.

The 747 jet, Flight 800, was bound for Charles de Gaulle Airport from Kennedy Airport when it went into the Atlantic Ocean 20 miles off Moriches Inlet about 8:45 p.m. The site off the south shore of the island is about 40 miles east of New York City.

"It was a big orange fireball . . . you saw nothing but flames," said witness Eileen Daly. "My initial reaction was what is it? . . . Oh my God, it's an airplane!"

More than three hours after the crash, wreckage and fuel on the water could be seen burning. Some helicopters were searching for bodies with infrared equipment, while others hovered overhead trying to illuminate the pitch-black water.

There were 212 passengers and 17 crew members on the flight, according to Mike Kelly, a TWA vice president. He said the plane had arrived from Athens, Greece, and had been on the ground about three hours before taking off for Paris. Some of the passengers were from an earlier canceled flight to Rome.

"We are not finding any survivors," said Steve Sapp of the U.S. Coast Guard. "We are locating lots of bodies out there."

Suffolk County Fire Department Chief Myles Quinn said a temporary morgue was set up near the scene.

TWA's Kelly noted the FAA had been placed on an increased level of security because of the Olympics, which start Friday, but said there had been no specific threats against TWA or the flight.

"Anything is possible," Kelly said.

"We already had one of the highest levels of security you can have, but that hasn't changed in the last few weeks," he said.

Asked about the possibility of a bomb, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Eliot Brenner said, "We can't discuss security issues."

He said the FAA had no information on whether there had been any distress call.

Reports of an explosion will inevitably prompt speculation about sabotage and questions about security at airports, particularly in light of the Olympics.

In Atlanta, John Kennedy, a spokesman for Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, said officials were awaiting word from the FAA before deciding if security should increase there. An FAA directive would go to all airports nationwide simultaneously, he said.

Olympic officials said they were awaiting more details of the explosion before deciding whether to increase security for the Summer Games in general.

"It's too soon to say," said Lyn May, spokeswoman for the security office of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. "We have good intelligence. We'll be watching the investigation closely, but it's too soon to do anything based on preliminary reports."

The National Transportation Safety Board was sending a team to the crash scene.

Brenner of the FAA said the plane was a Boeing 747-100, an early model of the giant airliner, first produced in 1970. It can carry as many as 450 passengers.

Debbie Walsh, who was at a restaurant within view of the crash, said, "It looked like a ball of fire falling into the water. It was a ball of fire and then the plane trailed down and seemed to break into two pieces."

People on pleasure boats in the general vicinity of the crash reported seeing bodies in the water alongside fragments of the plane still on fire.

The jet went down in 100 feet of water amid warm 15-knot breezes, wave heights of 1 foot and whitecaps _ which can confuse rescuers, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Jeffrey Fenn said.

The crash was the second major airline disaster in slightly more than two months, following the May 11 crash in Florida of a ValuJet DC-9. All 110 people aboard that plane died when it crashed into Florida's Everglades.

The deadliest air disaster in U.S. history came in 1979 when a DC-10 crashed on takeoff at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, killing 273.

The worst air disaster blamed on a bomb occurred on Dec. 21, 1988, when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on a flight from London to New York. That crash killed 259 passengers and crew members.

Authorities in the United States and Britain believe two Libyan intelligence officers, working at their government's behest, planted Semtex explosive in the luggage hold of the Boeing 747 secreted inside a portable tape player.

TWA has in the past been a target for terrorists.

One of its flights between Athens, Greece, and Rome in the summer of 1985 was singled out by terrorists and hijacked. The hijacking ended after extensive negotiations with the captors, 17 days later, with the release of 39 of the passengers and crew members.

The 747

TWA Flight 800 was a Boeing 747-100, an early model of the giant airliner first produced in 1970. It can carry as many as 450 passengers.

Wing span: 195 ft.

Weight: 712,000 lbs. at takeoff

Length: 231 ft.

_ Information from Knight Ridder, the New York Times and Newsday was used in this report.

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