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Source: Test That Found Residue of Explosives Not Borne Out By Later

July 23, 1996

EAST MORICHES, N.Y. (AP) _ Sophisticated tests on a wing fragment from a TWA jumbo jet found no trace of explosives, contradicting an earlier test finding, a senior federal official said today.

Original tests done by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had shown a borderline positive reaction indicating an explosive residue, but a federal official in Washington who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity said that was not confirmed in later testing.

A source at the scene of the investigation had told the AP that traces of explosive material were found on a piece of wing recovered from the downed jumbo jet.

The source in Washington said it was not unusual to have a quick, borderline response that is not borne out by later, more extensive testing. Although the wing doesn’t have any traces of explosive residue, investigators are eager to examine a large load of additional metal, expected to be salvaged today.

The search for bodies, wreckage and evidence picked up today at the scene of the crash of Flight 800 with the arrival of a sophisticated Navy salvage ship and more sonar mapping of the ocean floor. Divers pulled up six bodies Monday after locating a section of the doomed plane’s fuselage.

Investigators have officially said they are not yet sure what caused the plane to explode over the Atlantic shortly after takeoff Wednesday. They have said the explosion was either the result of a bomb, a missile or a catastrophic mechanical failure.

National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman Robert Francis, asked about the reports of bomb residue this morning on the NBC ``Today″ show, said: ``I’ll comment to say I’m totally unaware of that. I’ve heard nothing from anybody who knows what they’re talking about saying that.″

At the crash scene today was the USS Grasp, with high-tech tracking equipment and 23 additional divers, the Navy said. The Grasp, a Virginia-based Navy salvage-and-rescue ship, is equipped with a robot and special video and scanning equipment. It is capable of supporting divers up to 190 feet down and can lift heavy objects.

Overnight, using sonar equipment, investigators mapped out 14 target areas in the 3-by-4-mile grid to guide divers.

``Those targeted areas show a large concentration of debris,″ Navy spokesman Lt. Nicholas Balice said today. ``But it’s not until we send down cameras or divers that we can be certain that it’s part of the aircraft wreckage.″ Divers were not back in the water as of early today.

Finding victims continues to be the primary concern.

``We are concentrating on the people, we are not concentrating on aluminum,″ said Francis.

Divers on Monday reached the 60-by-30-foot piece of fuselage in a ``wreckage field″ of airplane parts under more than 100 feet of water and brought up six additional bodies, Francis said. A boat using sonar on Sunday pinpointed the area of the wreckage.

The FBI’s New York chief, James Kallstrom, estimated that there were at least 40 more bodies near the sunken fuselage, The New York Times reported. Eitan Sobel, a cousin of crash victim Gadi Notes, said officials told relatives Monday night that there were 20 more bodies where the six were found.

Of the 230 people killed in the crash _ the second worst in U.S. history _ 107 bodies have been recovered.

Besides the possibility of a bomb, the FBI also is studying other possibilities in the explosion, including a catastrophic mechanical failure or a surface-to-air rocket attack.

FBI agents investigating the rocket theory seized the records of a Long Island marina where two men rented a boatslip the night before the crash and did not ask for their deposit back after returning, the Daily News reported today.

But one of the two men who were aboard the boat, Ron Grant, told the AP today that the whole thing was a dispute over the size of the slip and he had explained that to the FBI on Saturday.

At a news conference Monday night, Francis said there are literally hundreds of objects littering the 500-foot-long wreckage field on the ocean floor off Fire Island. After removing any more bodies that might be found, investigators will analyze and prioritize the objects to bring up.

``This is a slow process,″ Francis said. ``We’re going to be doing this at a speed that guarantees we get the best possible result.″

Finding the wreckage was critical for investigators, who say clues might be lost the longer it remains in the water. Surging salt water can destroy or sweep away chemical signatures on bomb materials or pieces of evidence.

Nonetheless, ``The recovery of the victims takes priority,″ Francis said.

Another key in the investigation in finding the plane’s voice and data recorders, the so-called black boxes. Searchers have not detected the ``pings″ that the boxes are supposed to emit. ``Most likely they’re shielded in some way,″ Francis said.

News that the wreckage had been located was made public at a seaside memorial service attended by victims’ families.

``That was a good omen. It was a good day for us,″ said Kallstrom, visibly heartened after several draining days of searchers hampered by bad weather and equipment problems.

The memorial service was held on Fire Island, at one of the points of land nearest to where the Paris-bound 747 exploded. Besides a priest, minister and rabbi, several politicians spoke, including Gov. George Pataki and Sen. Alfonse D’Amato.

After the service, many mourners waded into the surf and threw roses in the murky water. One young woman defiantly walked against the crashing waves up to her waist and tossed a small object into the sea.

Wreaths, a stuffed teddy bear and other treasures were taken by boat to the crash site.

``It’s still a nightmare and it will always be, maybe until we go also,″ said Frank Ortiz, who lost his niece, Virginia Holst, in the crash. ``By touching the water I think we touched her.″

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