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Large piece of TWA jet recovered

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Salvage workers recovered their first large piece of the Trans World Airlines jet from the ocean floor on Saturday and sent the portion of the right wing to the building where the 747 is being reconstructed, hoping it would offer some clues to the cause of the crash 11 days ago.

Federal officials also reported that they used underwater video cameras to examine two of the plane's engines found on the ocean floor, and that in the preliminary inspection they appeared normal. The finding appeared to bolster what investigators said was a diminishing possibility that a mechanical malfunction caused the crash. The two other engines have yet to be found, but information from the plane's flight data recorder indicated no engine trouble before the crash.

James Kallstrom, the assistant FBI director for the New York office, said at "first blush" there appeared to be no connection between the crash of the TWA jet and the pipe bomb that exploded in Atlanta early Saturday morning. And he said that no FBI resources were being diverted from the crash investigation to Atlanta.

Although investigators have not ruled out mechanical failure as the cause of the crash, law enforcement officials reiterated on Saturday that they have continued to investigate the possibility that the plane was destroyed by a bomb or a missile, a theory supported by witnesses' reports of an object or light moving toward the plane before it exploded.

Federal officials said the main focus of the massive salvage effort off Long Island's South Shore is the recovery of human remains, but Robert Francis, the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who is leading the investigation, conceded on Saturday that it was unlikely that the remains of all 230 victims would be recovered.

"We certainly hope to be able to," Francis said. "But in situations like this kind, you know, the recovery of 100 percent of bodies is not usual." The remains of 145 people had been recovered as of late Saturday.

Francis said the section of the wing was recovered because divers thought there might be a body underneath it, but that turned out not to be true. He said that at this point, pieces of the plane would only be brought to the surface if they were thought to be hiding human remains.

Officials said the wing section, which measured about 15 feet long, would be brought to the former Grumman plant in Calverton, N.Y., where the plane is being roughly reassembled and examined for clues to the crash. The investigators said that only a small portion of the plane has been recovered and that larger pieces of the aircraft would have to be recovered and examined before the cause of the crash could be determined with certainty.

Francis told reporters that salvage workers thought they had found the front portion of the airplane, perhaps the cockpit and nose section. But he said the destruction of the plane was so severe that even engineers from Boeing, the company that built the plane, in viewing the videotape taken from the ocean floor, could not be certain what part of the plane it was. "It's not like there's a nice chunk of airplane down there, the way it looks when you see it out on the ramp," Francis said.

Additional divers and specialized boats were being added on Saturday to the round-the-clock search for the remains of those killed and for more clues to the cause of the crash.

As the investigation continued at sea and elsewhere, the bitter toll of Flight 800 was being felt over and over in services and funerals.

Off Long Island's South Shore, the search and recovery operation has grown into a massive effort, officials said on Saturday, with about 100 divers as well as boats from the Navy, the Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the New York City police. A boat with a laser scanner joined the search late on Friday, and a second Navy salvage ship, capable of raising heavy pieces through more than 100 feet of ocean water, was to arrive off East Moriches by Monday.

The large pieces of fuselage and its engines could help investigators understand what happened to the 747. Once the engines are ashore, specialists will look at the pattern of damage to their blades to see whether they were running at the time of impact, which would help reconstruct the plane's final moments.

Among some law enforcement officials, notably Kallstrom, the missile scenario is seen as plausible.

Kallstrom has said that various witnesses reported seeing an object or a streak of light ascending toward the plane before the explosion.