1. Archive

Families lash out at slow recovery

As divers continued to scour the ocean floor for bodies and clues to the cause of the crash of TWA Flight 800, victims' relatives repeatedly posed an anguished question Wednesday: Why haven't divers recovered the dozens of bodies they have found on the ocean floor?

The answer, investigators said, reflects the internal tensions of a salvage operation that has had to balance the investigative need to collect evidence of a possible crime with the emotional imperative to recover victims.

Publicly, officials and investigators have said that their first priority is to recover the bodies of victims. But the law enforcement officials, speaking privately, say they are at least as concerned with retrieving evidence as fast as possible, before the clues that might point to an act of sabotage are washed away.

Investigators say they are also concerned that moving wreckage to recover bodies could destroy material that could explain the explosion of the 747 off the coast of Long Island on July 17.

These clashing priorities have resulted in conflicting public statements about what has been found on the ocean floor, making a frustrating wait even more agonizing to relatives of the victims. On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. George Pataki announced that divers had found 60 to 100 bodies near the wreckage, a statement that was contradicted hours later by Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Yet hours after that, another federal official seemed to confirm Pataki's statement.

Officials said the investigators' deep concerns about the families may explain the widely divergent statements about the number of bodies. Yet with each statement the hopes and emotions of the victims' relatives have been lifted and then trampled on.

At an emotional news conference Wednesday morning at the Ramada Plaza Hotel at John F. Kennedy International Airport, relatives of victims demanded the truth from investigators.

"Everybody in that room has already been hurt as much as they possibly can," said Joseph Lynchner of Houston, whose 37-year-old wife, Pamela, and two young daughters died in the crash. "Don't spare us our feelings. Tell us what you know, now."

Max Dadi, a relative of a French victim, said: "We don't care what caused it. We want our bodies back."

Within hours of the families' news conference, the White House announced that President Clinton would fly to New York City today to meet with the victims' families.

Investigators also said Wednesday that they were no closer to finding the cause of the crash. No pieces of wreckage have tested positive for chemicals consistent with explosives, investigators said.

CBS News and CNN reported Wednesday night that investigators think pieces of metal found in victims could be shrapnel from an explosion.

The metal was found in victims seated in all parts of the plane, not just in one section, supporting the belief of investigators that the plane exploded and broke into several parts, the networks reported.

"From the very beginning we believed there was an explosion on the aircraft and the only thing we have to answer is how it happened," said FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom. "As for the body or any other evidence, I'm just not going to comment."

Three more bodies were brought ashore Wednesday. Of the 230 people who were killed when the plane exploded, 116 bodies were still missing. Of the bodies recovered, 95 have been identified by the Suffolk County Medical Examiner's office.

Several investigators said on Wednesday that the bodies and body parts, seen by divers for the first time Monday, are not recoverable until several large pieces of wreckage are moved. Plans for such an operation are in the works, an official said.

Off Long Island, investigators face problems unique to recovering bodies and wreckage 120 feet below the ocean surface. One difficulty, federal officials said, is that the scuba divers could operate underwater for only about five minutes until the Navy salvage ship Grasp began operations Tuesday. The ship has a decompression chamber that allows divers to stay down for 90 minutes at a time.

In the meantime, Pataki announced the federal government would take several steps to try to better inform family members.

The first is the setting up of a communications link between the command center and the families to bring them information quickly, before it becomes public.

Second, regular briefings will be scheduled and held by one representative, who will coordinate all the information coming into the command center from the many agencies involved.

Finally, Pataki promised the families they would be told first when bodies are recovered.

Francis, the NTSB vice chairman, said later that investigators would tell families first whenever bodies are recovered. He also said he would begin holding briefings twice a day.

Lynchner, the man who lost his wife and two children, demanded the officials keep their promises.

"We are not children," Lynchner said. "We have already lost everything we can possibly lose. We call upon the federal government, the governor's office and everybody involved in this investigation to give us all the information that they have as soon as they get it, and do it now."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.