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Tape contains mystery sound

Published Sep. 16, 2005

The cockpit tape recovered from TWA Flight 800 revealed no trace of mechanical trouble and ended abruptly with afragment of unexplained noise, pushing investigators closer Thursday to a sobering conclusion:

A bomb or missile probably destroyed the plane and 230 lives.

Though a mechanical flaw remained a possibility, President Clinton ordered tighter security at all U.S. airports.

"The security of the American people must be our top priority," Clinton said after spending nearly three hours with families of the victims.

Investigators said the voice recorder, recovered Wednesday night with the equally vital flight data recorder, showed no hint of apprehension in the cockpit, not even a syllable of warning or alarm.

Nothing else seemed out of the ordinary during takeoff and the first 11{ minutes of flight.

But just as the tape ends, all four channels of the device "recorded a brief fraction of a sound," according to Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

"Clearly there are things here that are not totally normal," Francis said.

Though no one drew firm conclusions from the tantalizing clue, a sound of that nature was consistent with evidence produced by the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 and other bombings of commercial aircraft.

Francis said investigators were analyzing the sound with sophisticated equipment. Other experts said the equipment could identify the noise, even the nature of the explosion that apparently caused it.

"It's a very encouraging thing," said Ira Fuhrman, the NTSB's former deputy director. "It may lead to a conclusion of terrorism, but it does not exclude all other possibilities."

Said James Kallstrom, director of the FBI's New York office:

"We know there was a catastrophic explosion. It was caused by some kind of a bomb, obviously."

He quickly tempered his remark.

"We're not further describing how that would be. Whether it was carried on, whether something hit the plane from outside and caused it to explode, or a mechanical problem."

Even though the tape proved inconclusive for now, Clinton _ who consoled victims' families earlier in the day _ announced measures that could make air travel more expensive and less convenient.

The president ordered that more baggage be screened or hand-searched and that aircraft making international flights be fully inspected _ "every plane, every cabin, every cargo hold, every time."

He also appointed Vice President Al Gore to head a commission on airline safety that will report back in 45 days on how to deploy the latest security technology.

"Whatever needs to be done, we will do it," said Clinton, who spoke alongside Air Force One at Kennedy Airport, where Flight 800 took off a week ago.

But such measures "could increase the inconvenience and expense of air travel," he warned. "I want the American people to know that up-front."

The Federal Aviation Administration immediately told passengers to be ready for delays at airports because of congestion at security checkpoints as more bags are opened and searched.

At Tampa International Airport, officials expect to implement Clinton's security plan within the next week.

Passengers at TIA should clearly label their bags and carry a photo identification and arrive at the airport at least one hour before departure time, said James Johnson, TIA's senior director of airports. Passengers should also expect more security questions at the check-in counter and random hand searches of luggage at security check points, Johnson said.

"It will definitely take longer to get on the plane, but I think passengers will appreciate the higher level of security," Johnson said.

Higher security at the airport might mean higher travel costs. According to Johnson, the airlines that use TIA will pay for the airport's increased security staff, and he expects the airlines to pass this cost on to passengers.

"We'll probably see higher fares, but in light of what's happened recently, I think the president's security plan is a prudent one."

Clinton, a white ribbon of remembrance for victims pinned to his lapel, cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the crash's cause.

Investigators still hoped to find the answer in the black boxes, which were recovered scratched and dented, but with "healthy" tapes. NTSB investigator Robert Benzon called their recovery "a great step."

Nearly half those aboard the Paris-bound jetliner when it exploded over the Atlantic on July 17 _ 126 bodies _ had been recovered by Thursday. Of those, 111 had been identified.

Meanwhile, the search for more bodies continued about 10 miles off Long Island, where two Navy search vessels were anchored above two areas covered with debris.

One of the wreckage fields contains a 45-foot-high object that could be the remains of the plane's tail; the other, a 60- by 30-foot piece of twisted fuselage that is thought to contain or cover bodies.

The president announced the new safety rules after an emotional meeting with about 400 of the victims' relatives, who he acknowledged had suffered greatly. He expressed sympathy for their frustration with the pace at which bodies have been recovered and identified.

He said he agreed with the relatives' recommendation that the federal government establish an office to assist families in such a catastrophe. House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa., has said he would introduce legislation to create such an office.

Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton met the families privately at the hotel where many of the relatives have stayed since the crash. The meeting lasted three hours. The president consoled the relatives personally, offering many a squeeze of the hand, a pat on the back, a hug.

Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum attended the meeting with Clinton. He said of the president: "He was rabbi, priest and minister as one."

_ Information from Times staff writer Jeffrey Gettleman, Knight-Ridder Newspapers and the Associated Press was used in this report.

Inside the black box

Data from the cockpit voice recorder (known as the black box) and digital flight recorder help investigators reconstruct a crash.


Cockpit voice recorder

Automatically records noises, alarms and conversations in cockpit, over intercom, with control tower.

Digital flight data recorder

Steel tape records speed, altitude, pitch and roll, flap and slat positions for 25 hours or more.

Sources: Chicago Tribune, Boeing Co., Sundstrand Inc., Fairchild Weston Systems Inc.