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TWA Crash Blamed on Mechanical FAilure Pending Further Evidence

By Serge F. Kovaleski
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

In the strongest indication to date that safety investigators believe mechanical failure caused the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800, a senior official says the government will likely take that position if no evidence of a bomb or missile is found in the dwindling amount of unrecovered wreckage.

The comments by Bernard S. Loeb, director of aviation safety for the National Transportation Safety Board, come as salvage experts are trawling the ocean floor for the remaining 5 percent or so of debris from the plane.

Barring unforeseen evidence, he said in an interview, the NTSB will likely take the official position that the tragedy was caused by mechanical malfunction and then focus exclusively on what caused the center fuel tank to explode before the Boeing 747-100 crashed.

"If we find no evidence of criminal activity in anything else we retrieve, as far as I am concerned this will be an airplane accident and we will treat it as such," Loeb said.

These remarks are the clearest public statements yet in the 16-week-old inquiry indicating that officials at the NTSB, the lead agency in the investigation, believe mechanical failure caused the nearly empty fuel tank to blow and the Paris-bound plane to smash into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island. The 230 people on the jumbo jet were killed.

Officially, senior investigators have been saying that all three theories for the disaster are "on the board."

In discussing the likelihood of mechanical failure, the NTSB also cautioned that the trawling operation, which began Monday after divers ended more than three months of salvage work.

If not, the NTSB would handle the investigation as if the crash were an accident and would most likely hold public hearings, as it does in other cases, before issuing a final report on the probable cause of the July 17 disaster, official said.

For now, safety investigators point to the fact that extensive metallurgical analysis has so far found no evidence consistent with a bomb or missile explosion, such as pitting, melting away or disintegration of metal. At the same time, investigators have found damage patterns around the center fuel tank that indicate a slower, less powerful blast than that produced by an explosive device.

James K. Kallstrom, the FBI assistant director who is heading the criminal probe into the crash, said a decision on whether the plane was brought down by a bomb or missile would be made jointly between the bureau and the NTSB.

Like his counterparts at the NTSB, Kallstrom said he was encouraged that the trawling operation has been recovering more wreckage that may help investigators get to "the endgame" in figuring out what caused the demise of Flight 800.