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TWA crash probe looks at previous blasts

Federal officials investigating the crash of TWA Flight 800 said Monday that they were making a comparison of foreign air crashes caused by bombs in their search for information that could help them prove their theory that the 747 was brought down by a bomb.

Although the officials said they were not ready to declare the crash a result of a criminal act, they are comparing the evidence gathered so far with that gathered in the 1988 Pan Am jet bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, the 1989 downing of a French plane over Chad and a 1985 crash of an Air India plane that was blamed on a bomb.

Robert Francis, the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said: "Certainly, I think we've acknowledged from the beginning that there's a possibility that this could have been an act that would be comparable to those. And we're doing what we would do in any accident investigation and that is comparing the things that have similarities."

For the first time Monday, officials publicly said that the catastrophic event that apparently broke the airplane in two, whether caused by an explosion or a mechanical malfunction, occurred near the front of the plane. Joseph Cantamessa Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI's New York office, said the bodies of victims sitting near the front of the plane showed more severe injuries, indicating they "experienced the bulk of the significant event."

Officials have said that the front part of the plane apparently separated from the rest and plunged into the ocean before the rest of the jet.

Investigators said they were one piece of evidence away from declaring the crash a criminal act, but that evidence continued to elude them Monday.

On Monday, funeral services were held in New York, Missouri and California for several crew members who died in the July 17 crash.

As some families of the victims expressed concern about the pace of the search and authorities' commitment to it, Francis paid a visit to the families and again emphasized that body recovery remains the top priority.

However, Francis has said that any plane part that must be moved to look for bodies will then be salvaged, and that some resources that are not appropriate for body recovery will be used full time for aircraft salvage work.

Divers continued pulling large pieces of wreckage from the ocean off Long Island, and preliminary tests on some of them showed traces of explosives. But for those pieces, and others pulled up in previous days, more sophisticated testing at the FBI laboratory in Washington failed to confirm the early positive tests.

In addition, investigators said Monday, metal that at first seemed to bear a pockmarked pattern consistent with an explosion, turned out to have been marred by having been submerged in the ocean.

Officials also said that the final loud noise picked up by the plane's cockpit voice recorder just before it stopped would not alone provide enough evidence for investigators to determine the nature of the cataclysmic event.

"We're all a little frustrated by not being able to find the cause of this occurrence," Cantamessa said.

The TWA flight crashed the day after a French magistrate left Libya, where he had been investigating the 1989 bombing of a DC-10 over the Sahara Desert. All 170 people on board were killed.

The French Transport Ministry said shortly after the French jet went down seven years ago that information from the plane's data recorders "showed that the flight proceeded in a normal manner until a total interruption, which translates as an explosion in flight."

"The work of the crew was proceeding normally when the recording of words and electronic data abruptly stopped," the statement said.

The data and voice recorders on the TWA flight also stopped abruptly.