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TWA crash investigation focuses on front of plane

Investigators of the TWA Flight 800 catastrophe examined on Sunday the relative positions of key pieces of the plane on the ocean floor, looking for clues to the flight's final moments.

National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Robert Francis said a major debris field containing parts of the aircraft's front section was 1{ miles to the southwest of a debris field containing middle and rear sections of the jet.

The plane was traveling to the northeast when it exploded in a ball of fire July 17, killing all 230 people on board. "I guess it's fair to say that things that come off first tend to be an indicator of what happened," he said.

Francis declined to answer when asked whether the find was an indication that the explosion took place in the front of the aircraft, as some news reports have said. He reiterated that investigators were unable to conclude whether the crash was caused by a bomb, a missile or by mechanical failure.

The southwestern debris field contained the front landing gear and parts of first-class and business-class passenger compartments, as well as the staircase that leads to the Boeing 747's upper deck.

Navy divers Saturday recovered the leading edge of the right wing, Francis said.

Asked if divers had found the cockpit, Francis said: "No." Al Dickinson, another NTSB investigator, said videotape footage of those forward areas showed no signs yet of the cockpit.

Francis and the others stressed that recovery of the victims was the top priority, and noted that although two more minor incidents involving the divers' safety occurred overnight Saturday, water conditions were improving.

"Clearly there are not as many victims to be recovered as there were when we started," Francis said. "We're still focusing our first priority on that, but we're also finding that we have some resources that are not appropriate for victim recovery that we are going to start to use to pick up wreckage.

"As we lift pieces, if, in fact, we find victims, then the recovery of victims becomes our primary target," he said. Divers had recovered 150 bodies as of midday Sunday, and 146 of those have been identified.

Also under scrutiny were two of the jet's four engines, which showed nothing unusual in underwater examinations.

The growing likelihood that a premeditated act caused the crash was made all the more unnerving by a bombing at the Olympic Games in Atlanta Saturday.

James Kallstrom, assistant director of the FBI, said the two events appeared unrelated.

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