Divers reached a large section of downed TWA Flight 800 on the ocean floor Monday, pulling out six bodies and searching for any evidence of what caused the disaster.
"I would characterize this as a major find because we're starting to get significant parts of the fuselage," said Robert Francis, the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who is leading the investigation.
Francis said the fuselage section was found in a "wreckage field" of airplane parts scattered below 120 feet of water.
Dramatically, the first word of the find was announced to the families and friends of the 230 crash victims by Gov. George E. Pataki at an oceanside memorial service.
"God works in very strange ways," Pataki said at the close of the ceremony. "While we were here, a major part of the fuselage has been found. Additional bodies have been located. We're hopeful that your agony and struggle will come to a quicker end."
A second of stunned silence followed, before family members and 100 military and law enforcement officials seated behind them broke into applause.
The discovery came after several days when searchers were hampered by bad weather and equipment glitches.
At a news conference Monday night, Francis said there are hundreds of objects littering the wreckage field. After removing any more bodies that might be found, investigators will analyze and put priorities on the objects to bring up.
"This is a slow process," Francis said. "We're going to be doing this at a speed that guarantees we get the best possible result."
The bodies were found underneath the 30-foot by 60-foot piece of fuselage sticking about 10 feet off the sea floor, Francis said. Any more bodies found will be removed before investigators try to bring up wreckage, which is strewn in a fairly dense trail about 500 feet long.
"We are concentrating on the people," Francis said. "We are not concentrating on aluminum."
The Paris-bound flight exploded in a fireball and plummeted into the sea last Wednesday about 10 miles offshore, killing all 230 aboard. Investigators are still unsure what caused the catastrophe, but suspect terrorism or a massive mechanical failure.
Finding the wreckage was critical for investigators, who say clues might be lost the longer the wreckage remains in the water. Surging saltwater can destroy or sweep away chemical signatures on bomb materials or pieces of evidence.
Even the smallest items could prove important. It was a fingernail-sized fragment of a timing device found embedded in clothing that determined that a bomb blew Pan Am Flight 103 out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Preliminary field tests on Flight 800 wreckage have found what investigators consider suspicious residue, which was being sent to Washington for further study at a government laboratory. But law enforcement officials said it was "premature and irresponsible" to conclude that the residue proves the crash was the result of deliberate sabotage or terrorism.
The Boeing 747's two black boxes still haven't been found, and investigators said they haven't heard the telltale "pings" the boxes emit, possibly because they are buried or covered with certain types of metal. The search for the boxes was being temporarily suspended so workers could focus on retrieving the fuselage.
Of the 107 bodies recovered by Monday, 64 had been positively identified.
After the tearful seaside memorial service, some mourners waded into the surf to throw roses into the sea. As the New York Boys Choir sang Wind Beneath My Wings, a cadre of gulls circled overhead.
Joseph Ortiz of Clearwater, whose niece Virginia Holst and her husband, Eric, died in the crash, took the hand of one of his teenage sons as he joined the procession into the water.
"I told him we had to go into the water for Virginia," Ortiz said. "Because she is there, and this way we can be together."
A hush fell over the beach when a C-130 cargo plane and helicopter from a local Air Guard group hovered above in tribute.
The search Monday was made easier by the best weather since the crash, 2 foot swells and moderate winds. The Coast Guard collected debris on the surface near the crash site, about 12 miles off Long Island.
_ Information from the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times was used in this report.