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Cockpit Conversation Was Routine; Plane Flew for Several Seconds

July 27, 1996

EAST MORICHES, N.Y. (AP) _ A captain’s calm order to increase altitude amounted to the last recorded words from TWA Flight 800′s cockpit before the plane exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, data from the flight’s black boxes show.

The last words from the cockpit are followed by a loud unidentifiable noise. After that the flight recorder tape abruptly ends, indicating the flight was operating normally moments before the explosion and raising suspicions that a bomb or missile downed the plane, investigators said Friday.

An investigator who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Los Angeles Times that the explosion blasted through the right side of the plane, first rupturing the fuel tanks before the rest of the wreckage fell into the sea.

The position of underwater debris showed which side of the plane was rocked by the blast, the newspaper reported in today’s editions.

The radar records also showed that the plane descended for several seconds before bursting into a fireball and falling in pieces to the ocean.

After the voice tape ends, the plane _ or some large portion of it _ continued to be tracked by radar for an additional 41 seconds and 2 1/2 nautical miles, said National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Robert Francis.

The point at which the radar ends is ``near the positions where the engines and large pieces of wreckage have been found,″ Francis said.

The Paris-bound 747 exploded in a fireball around sunset on July 17 at 13,700 feet, 10 miles off of Long Island. All 230 people aboard perished.

NTSB engineers said the flight data recorder, retrieved from wreckage on the ocean bottom, ended abruptly without showing anything unusual, such as engine trouble or a sudden change in speed.

The final words in the cockpit were from the captain as he calmly issued an order to increase altitude after receiving clearance from ground control to go from 13,000 to 15,000 feet, investigators said Friday.

The crew also discussed a problem matching one piece of baggage to a passenger; the late arrival of a box of corneas for transplant; and an erratic fuel-flow gauge. But officials said that after investigating each of those issues, none appears to be related to anything that could have caused the crash.

James Kallstrom, the FBI agent in charge, said investigators were looking closely at the possibility of a missile attack.

``We do have information that there was something in the sky. A number of people have seen it. A number of people have described it very similarly,″ he said. ``It was ascending.″

Meanwhile, safety board technicians in Washington subjected the cockpit voice tape to sound spectrum analysis, a process capable of differentiating between an explosion caused by a mechanical malfunction and one caused by a bomb.

Barry Trotter, a former NTSB senior investigator, said technicians use computers to ``enhance the sound, slow it down, spread it out,″ and chart it on a graph. A fast-moving bomb noise would show a sharp, steep line, while a slower-moving fuel explosion sound would have more of a slope.

The board has a library of sounds from other crashes, said Trotter, including the brief, sudden burst of the bomb that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

Earlier Friday, divers spotted two of the four engines and salvagers said they were ready to raise big chunks of wreckage. That would allow experts to check for signs of a bomb or missile.

``We need the forensic evidence,″ Kallstrom said.

More than half the victims’ bodies had been recovered. Divers brought up 14 more late Thursday and early Friday for a total of 140.

The families of the victims, holed up at a hotel at Kennedy Airport awaiting word on the bodies, continued to mourn. ``There’s enough grief in there to fill the Atlantic,″ said Patricia O’Grady, whose cousin died in the crash.

No physical evidence _ such as chemical residue from explosives on airline debris, or suspect material in victims’ bodies _ has been found to confirm suspicions of sabotage.

___

AP reporters Rick Hampson, Pat Milton, Richard Pyle and Joe Ungaro contributed to this report.

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