Training Exercise Possible Source of TWA Explosive Residue
WASHINGTON (AP) _ A month before the crash of TWA Flight 800, the airliner was used to train bomb-sniffing dogs, and the explosives in those exercises could explain the traces of chemical residue found on the plane, a government official said Friday.
Investigators have been stymied for weeks in determining exactly what caused the plane to plunge into the Atlantic Ocean July 17, killing all 230 people on board.
Traces of chemicals often used in bomb-making have been found. But investigators say they have not gathered enough evidence to conclude that the plane was brought down by a terrorist act.
A federal official familiar with the investigation said on Friday that in June, as part of a routine training exercise, the TWA plane was used as a testing ground for a series of bomb-sniffing dogs.
``It was this plane, and the test bombs contained explosive material,″ said the source, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
While real explosives were used in the tests, it was not immediately clear whether the materials match the chemical residue found on seat cushions from the aircraft’s cabin.
``We still don’t know whether we have a match″ between the explosive residue and the bombs used in the training exercise, the official said.
``At this point, there would be no reason to rule out the possibility of a bomb, based only on this development,″ another federal official cautioned.
Both officials spoke only on condition they not be identified by name.
In Smithtown, N.Y., Friday, FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom, annoyed by reports that the probe of TWA Flight 800 was now focused on mechanical failure, said the possibility of a bomb or a missile attack remained very much alive.
``There is no shift in focus,″ Kallstrom told The Associated Press. ``Nothing has changed. ... The three theories remain on the board.″
But National Transportation Safety Board investigators have become increasingly interested in a possible mechanical failure as week after week goes by with no conclusive evidence of a bomb, an aviation source said.
NTSB investigators are eager to examine a missing fuel pump that could have caused an explosion in the plane’s center fuel tank, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Kallstrom said the ``no bomb″ argument cuts both ways, since there also is no evidence yet of a mechanical failure. ``The very last piece we pull up could have bomb fragments in it,″ he said. ``In the final analysis, the evidence will tell us what happened.″
Kallstrom continues to head the FBI investigation into the crash. The NTSB remains the lead agency in the search for an explanation.
``We are not holding out for a bomb,″ Kallstrom said. ``I’ve always said I hope it is mechanical. As tragic as it would be, it would be the least disruptive for our country.″
Nothing pulled from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean so far _ none of the 213 bodies, the plane’s cockpit, its four engines, luggage bins, chunks of fuselage _ has offered an answer to stymied investigators.
Recovery of Flight 800′s black boxes prompted early optimism, yet neither the cockpit voice recorder nor the flight data tape provided any answers. The voice box contained a ``fraction-of-a-second sound″ 11 1/2 minutes into the flight, and then went silent.
Although investigators at a Long Island hangar have painstakingly reconstructed the plane from its debris, they haven’t found the piece that would solve the puzzle.
The planes’ four engines _ key elements if a heat-seeking missile brought the doomed flight down _ were pulled from the ocean floor but offered ``nothing really extraordinary,″ said NTSB chief investigator Robert Francis.
The possibility of a bomb in one of the four luggage bins was ruled out when they were recovered and yielded no evidence of explosives.
NASA investigators who probed the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster were summoned last month to add their expertise. A variety of plane parts, including two pumps from the center fuel tank, were shipped to Huntsville, Ala., for examination. The possibility of a mechanical malfunction in the pumps was quickly ruled out by the aerospace team.
Divers are searching for a third pump.
Another potentially fertile piece of debris _ the plane’s cockpit, which was found with the captain still strapped in his seat _ showed evidence of neither a bomb nor a mechanical failure. Many of its instrument panels were intact when the section was pulled from the ocean.
Associated Press reporters Pat Milton and Larry Neumeister contributed to this report.