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Jet flew on after initial catastrophe

TWA Flight 800 suffered a catastrophic event that blew away a part of the plane, but it apparently continued to fly forward in a descent for up to 24 seconds before bursting into a fireball and plunging into the ocean 17 seconds later.

Investigators said Friday that radar tapes indicate parts of the plane broke off about the same time its onboard recorders abruptly stopped working. Other pieces broke away about the same time the fireball began and again near the point where the main wreckage hit the water.

A combination of radar data, onboard recorders and credible witnesses are painting a mosaic of the 41 seconds between the likely initial explosion and the plane's impact with the water, raising the possibility that some on board may have been alive in the last horrifying seconds before the crippled jet broke apart in a fireball. But the growing mass of information being assembled about the 747's last flight, which ended with the death of 230 people, still has given investigators no conclusive indication of what brought it down.

"I think we've moved the ball a few more . . . yards down the field," James Kallstrom, who is heading the FBI team, said in a briefing Friday. But in an apparent reference to widespread speculation that a bomb was aboard the plane, Kallstrom said: "We're not where we need to be. We're not here to declare what everybody is discussing in the newspapers. But I think we've moved a lot closer to that."

In Washington, investigators said that examination of autopsy reports from the victims continued to reveal wounds and metal shards that could not be definitively tied to a bomb. At the same time, no chemical residue has been found that could conclusively be identified as bomb materials.

At Friday's public briefing, Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said an initial reading of the plane's flight data recorder, recovered Wednesday, showed nothing unusual.

Francis said the data recording ends abruptly about the same time as the cockpit voice recorder.

"There's nothing to indicate that an engine stopped or the aircraft pitched or tipped up or changed speed."

He said the plane was in a stable wings-level climb at the end of the recording.

Review of the cockpit voice recorder shows that the flight was routine other than a few minor glitches, including a discussion of an erratic fuel flow gauge on one engine. At the last, split second before the recording stopped, there was "a loud, unknown noise."

Safety board technicians will use sound spectrum analysis in an attempt to discern the origin of the sound and will continue to assess the flight data recording, but these two "black boxes" have so far failed to solve the mystery.

Both recorders stopped operating about the same moment as the plane's transponders, which report the plane's identity and altitude to radar installations. Radio contact with the crew also ceased at that point.

There was continued good news in the recovery effort by Navy, Coast Guard and police boats and ships. Francis said 140 bodies have been found, and 131 have been identified.

Investigators also said they had found two of the plane's four engines. But they said they had decided to delay raising them and assessing their condition _ which could provide major clues _ because doing so would delay the recovery of bodies. Searchers have now brought up the remains of nearly two-thirds of the 230 people on board, and nearly half have been turned over to next-of-kin.

Much of the information on the plane's last moments has been provided by enhanced radar data and a rich array of pilot witnesses.

A C-130 turboprop and a Blackhawk helicopter arrived at the scene so rapidly after seeing the fireball that they both were forced to bank sharply to avoid falling debris, investigators said.

Other key witnesses included the pilots of an Alitalia plane flying behind the TWA plane, a Piedmont commuter plane approaching from the south at 11,000 feet and an Eastwind Airlines jet that was turning to the southwest over eastern Long Island at 16,000 feet. That plane, several miles away, was pointed nose-to-nose with Flight 800.

These pilots are providing key information on the plane's altitude during its final moments, vital in the probe because radar cannot determine altitude when a transponder is not operating.

Investigators said that while the pilots gave slightly different versions of events, they were fairly consistent in saying that the fireball began between 8,000 and 9,000 feet. At a minimum, they said, it is almost certain that the fireball began after the plane began its rapid descent.

Whatever the altitude, investigators are uncertain about the fireball's source of ignition. But they said it almost certainly was jet fuel escaping from wing tanks and burning.

In an unusual twist, the pilot witnesses may shed light on whether the plane lost all electrical power as it began its descent or continued to have some power despite the recorders' and transponder's abrupt halt. There are numerous separate electrical circuits on aircraft.

At least one pilot reported that the 747's landing lights may have still been illuminated as it began its descent.

Discussing the third scenario investigators are looking at _ the possibility that something, perhaps a missile, hit the plane, Kallstrom said in the briefing that those witnesses who have recalled seeing something "ascending" toward the aircraft more likely had seen something streaking away from it, possibly one of the parts that are believed to have separated during the initial event.

Experts said Friday that the main portion of the plane traveled 2{ miles forward in a straight line as it fell after the recorders and transponders ceased. Based on radar tapes and the location of debris fields on the seabed, pieces that fell off the plane at different points during the 41-second fall drifted southeast with the wind for 5 to 6 miles, continuing to provide targets for radar long after the plane hit the water.

_ Information from the New York Times was used in this report.