Riddle Of The Depths

As divers dodge sharks to solve the mystery of TWA Flight 800, the Feds are trapped between scores of grieving families and an incredibly complex case

THE DIVERS CALL IT MAKO CITY, AFTER THE MEDIUM-size sharks that prowl there. In a seabed 130 feet beneath the Atlantic nine miles off the coast of New York's Long Island, small whales, sea turtles and sharks meander around a maze of thick wire cables and shards of jagged metal. It is forever twilight in the graveyard of TWA Flight 800; a diver swimming into the stygian gloom risks becoming entangled in the debris, or slicing an air hose, or coming face to face with a hammerhead. Or a corpse.

Hardly an ideal working environment: entering it, one diver told The Washington Post, was like being "lowered into hell." Yet out of this gloom must come answers, and none too soon. The victims' families, who are understandably beginning to sound more like hostages than like mourners, are demanding the bodies of their loved ones. The gumshoes, on the other hand, want evidence that may lead them to a possible bomber, even if that means disturbing the watery graves of the dead. Politicians and reporters want headlines, sometimes before they have the facts to back them up. The result of all this clamor and conflict has been to confuse a public made even edgier by the Atlanta bombing.

In addition to all its other cultures, America now has a culture of disaster. Hardened cops, grieving widows, CNN cameramen and grasping pols are all trapped in it together. The images are familiar: the weary bureaucrats giving guarded nonanswers to edgy reporters, the shellshocked searchers returning from the grisly scene, the angry families tired of being given the runaround. It is hard for everyone, particularly the families. But it requires special patience from the investigators, both the safety experts and the cops, who know the lessons of Lockerbie and other major air disasters: that getting the truth takes time--months and years--and that answers rarely fall neatly into news cycles, especially if the most important clues lie 20 fathoms beneath the sea. Top investigation officials described their thought processes to NEWSWEEK--and explained why it's a mistake to jump to conclusions.

Titillating reports on the crash keep coming, only to be knocked down. Network news said several victims had shrapnel wounds that might be suffered in a bomb blast. But investigators had to point out that any crash this catastrophic could leave plane fragments in the victims' bodies. Other reports suggested that explosive residue had been found on fragments of Flight 800. Not yet, cautioned the Feds, though massive salvage ships will continue to fish for key parts, including the plane's engines, from the "debris field" beneath the waves.

More concrete was the evidence from Flight 800's black boxes, the tape recorders of cockpit conversations and instrument readings recovered by navy divers from the ocean floor. Flight 800's tape ends with a very brief, loud noise. Had the plane suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure, the 747's recorders would probably have picked up telltale instrument readings, not to mention the anguished last words of the pilots. After reviewing radar tapes and interviewing witnesses, mostly pilots from planes flying near Flight 800 when it went down, investigators have reconstructed a picture of the plane's last moments.

It appears that an initial explosion of some kind sent the plane plummeting from an altitude of 13,700 feet. After about 20 seconds--sheer terror for the passengers, most of whom were probably still alive--the whole plane burst into flames, most likely when the aviation fuel caught fire. (A jumbo jet crossing the ocean carries about 47,000 gallons of fuel, which is stored in the wings.) The fuselage plunged an additional 9,000 feet into the sea, crashing about 40 seconds after the first explosion. A shower of debris kept floating through the twilight sky for as long as 15 minutes.

Such evidence may be enough to make investigators say publicly what they believe privately, that a bomb took down the jumbo jet. But they still weren't ready to rule out all other theories, including the possibility that a missile struck Flight 800. Even if the Feds finally establish what happened, they will be far from discovering the who and the why. At this stage they can only draw on the experience of earlier crashes to guess at probabilities. The problem is that guesses won't satisfy an impatient and frightened public, and wrong guesses only inflame the conspiracy theorists while inevitably disappointing the rest.

In theory, investigators have the tools to perform miracles. FBI labs can identify a speck of explosive weighing as little as a trillionth of a gram. By listening to the four microphones feeding the cockpit recorder in a given jet, experts should be able to learn the distance and direction of shock waves, helping them pinpoint the location of an explosive. Experience has been less successful. The recordings made by the black boxes in two earlier bomb attacks on 747s--Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270, and an Air-India Flight above the Irish Sea in 1985, killing 329--also ended abruptly with unexplained noises. The recorders failed because the disasters cut off the jet's electrical power. After the downing of Pan Am 103, the British government recommended that the black boxes be hooked up to batteries so they would continue recording information for a few more seconds as the plane went down. But the U.S. government has done little to require airlines to put battery-powered recorders on American aircraft.

For all the public frustration at its seeming lassitude, the TWA 800 case is proceeding at a fairly typical pace. It took investigators only six days to discover that a bomb blew up Pan Am 103. But Pan Am's 747 fell to the ground, not into the sea, making the evidence much easier to recover. Even then, it took two months to identify fragments of the bomb and three years to indict a pair of Libyan terrorists--who have yet to be tried. The bombing of the Air-India flight has never been fully solved. That plane fell into 6,700 feet of water in the Irish Sea, and rescue workers were able to recover little of it. Gumshoes are also mindful of another 747 crash that was initially thought to be a bombing--but turned out to be the result of a mechanical failure. In 1991 a jet owned by an Austrian airline suddenly went down over Thailand. Police were about to arrest a disgruntled employee who had made bomb threats when they discovered that one of the 767's Pratt & Whitney engines had reversed thrust in midair, flinging the plane out of the sky.

It is still conceivable that some fatal flaw in Flight 800's 25-year-old jumbo jet brought it down. But other 747s crippled by catastrophic mechanical failure managed to stay in the air for a time as their pilots struggled for control--for six minutes when an El Al cargo plane went down in Amsterdam in 1992, and for 32 excruciating minutes before a Japan Airlines 747 plowed into mountains north of Tokyo in 1985, killing 520 people.

Bombs do not invariably destroy airliners. Indeed, in about 75 percent of all plane bombings, the aircraft manages to get back to an airport with minimal loss of life. Twice, 747s have survived bomb attacks: one as it approached Honolulu in 1982 and another over Pakistan two years later. The fact that TWA 800 did not is ominous: it suggests that if there was a bomber, he was a pro, no matter what his motives were.

But such speculation is far beyond the focus of investigators right now. Top officials in the National Transportation Safety Board and the Justice Department spent much of last week trying to quiet politicians whose mouths outran the evidence. The efforts to clarify the record just added to the uncertainty and illustrate the difficulty of trying to coordinate a difficult probe conducted by an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies.

The conflict between the families of the victims, who want bodies, and the investigators, who want evidence, erupted when Gov. George Pataki of New York tried to play consoler. Meeting with grieving family members at John F. Kennedy Airport's Ramada Plaza Hotel, he told them that divers had found dozens of bodies--possibly as many as 100--trapped in the sunken fuselage, raising hopes of a quick recovery effort. His information was quickly contradicted by officials from the NTSB, who insisted that only a handful of bodies had been found. One state official angrily told NEWSWEEK: "They basically wanted to cover up the fact that they couldn't get to those bodies. They were afraid the families would demand answers that they would not be able to provide. Why wasn't the proper equipment on the scene? Why weren't they prepared to have more divers?"

The official was overwrought--there were scores of frogmen on the scene--but it did take the navy almost a week to bring in a proper dive ship. It was the Grasp, whose 35 "hard hat" divers can descend into the depths on a metal platform and search for as long as 90 minutes at a time. Local and New York City police scuba divers could be underwater for only about 10 minutes before they had to return to the surface, ascending slowly to avoid the bends. The Suffolk County medical examiner, Dr. Charles Wetli, has been bitterly criticized by the families for taking too long to identify their relatives' remains. But to attach names to the often-mutilated corpses, he has had to rely on fingerprints, collected either from grief-stricken relatives at the Ramada or by hometown police forces dusting the homes of victims. About 75 percent of the 124 bodies recovered in the first week were identified by their teeth. For some of the 40-odd French victims, Wetli had to roust French dentists back from their summer holidays. The French have been particularly agitated about delays in recovering the bodies. After carping by French officials, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns issued Paris a none-too-diplomatic rejoinder: "We've got more citizens at the bottom of the ocean than you do. Give us a break."

Top officials are resigned to such fractiousness. "This is an instant-gratification society," said Bob Francis of the NTSB, who is overseeing the crash probe. Investigations must be slow and plodding to be done right, said Francis, in his deliberate, plodding voice. Fortunately, Francis has managed to bond with his FBI opposite, James Kallstrom, who runs the bureau's huge New York office (page 64). The gumshoes have been working alongside the safety investigators with relative harmony, just as the navy frogmen have tried to work with the less-well-equipped local divers. There have been adjustments along the way: FBI men stopped NTSB officials from photographing the wreckage because "they didn't want our people taking pictures and sending them out to Snappy photo," as opposed to a secure FBI lab, says Francis.

Agencies do compete to be first--to get cameras focused on agents in their characteristic jackets emblazoned with logos like FBI or ATF. The inevitable "battle of the field jackets," as well as premature press reports and the pressure to do something, may have led the White House astray last week. Talking to reporters aboard Air Force One, chief of staff Leon Panetta suggested that investigators were looking "most closely" at terrorism and that "chemical leftovers" had been recovered from the crash site. But hours later, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry scrambled to squash the story. The finger-pointing quickly began. Justice Department officials suspected that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, trying to grab credit, had led Panetta astray. Some White House officials opined that Panetta, who felt pressured and weary, may have just pulled a garbled report off CNN.

The presumption that terror brought down Flight 800 was enough to move the Clinton administration to tighten airport security. During an emotional visit to the victims' families in New York, the president announced a series of steps aimed at protecting airplanes and airports from terrorist attack. "From now on, we will hand-search more luggage and screen more bags, and we will require preflight inspections for any plane flying to or from the United States--every plane, every cabin, every cargo hold, every time," said Clinton. Passengers will have to start arriving earlier to check in, even on domestic flights, and they will have to get used to more long lines and delays. Frequent fliers will no doubt be irritated and forget why they are being inconvenienced. Until, that is, the next bomb comes along to remind them.

Nine miles offshore and 130 feet down, frogmen comb an eerie world of twisted aluminum and wire, searching for bodies and the most crucial debris. By late last week they had recovered 143 bodies, the jet's black boxes and two of four engines.

The 255-ft-long Grasp can lift 40 tons with its aft boom

(above) from local police departments stay below 15 minutes at a time

The 35 navy divers (right) descend in pairs to 130 ft. for about an hour. Until all victims are recovered, their priority will be to locate and raise bodies using the dive platform. On deck, divers have two minutes to get into a decompression chamber before the bends set in.

Loose debris float among towers of metal and wire. Temperature: 40[degrees]. Visibility: 15 ft.

Hypothermia, sharks. Pressurized plane parts can become deadly missiles. Torn metal and wires may cut or trap divers.

Air safety can be improved on two fronts--with tougher airport security on the ground and with tougher planes in the air. In recent years the FAA has been studying both approaches. The result, experts say, would be safer, and almost certainly more expensive, air travel. An overview of possible changes and their costs in time and money:

Baggage containers used in widebody jets can be made more bomb-resistant. But those changes would make planes heavier, possibly forcing airlines to eliminate seats--increasing ticket prices. A look at two approaches:

Containers have reinforced sides and back, but a weaker door that faces fuselage. In an explosion, energy is vented through door and out a special fuselage skin that blows out cleanly, controlling a potentially fatal blast.

Container panels made of high-strength aluminum-fiberglass laminate with a superstrong frame. In an explosion, energy is held within the box, which warps the panels but contains a potential catastrophe.

The scanners can detect plastic explosives but cost about $1 million each; the GAO estimates that putting them in the country's 75 busiest airports could cost up to $2.2 billion. The manufacturer says the costs could be covered by an extra $2 per ticket.

President Clinton has announced new security measures for U.S. airports and air carriers, but the added security will come at a cost for travelers. Experts estimate the plans could add 30 minutes to a passenger's checkin and could increase ticket prices. Airlines must have the measures implemented by Aug. 2. A summary:

Inspection of baggage compartments and passenger cabins of all planes flying into or out of the U.S. will be required.

Passengers will no longer be able to check in their bags early at hotels.

Curbside baggage check-in will be eliminated for all international flights.

Passengers will face more-thorough interviews with airline staff at check-in and have to show a photo ID.

At check-in, bags will face tougher scrutiny with more hand-checking and X-rays of luggage.

Physical searches of carry-on luggage will be more frequent.

Freight and mail will be screened more regularly.

Editor's Pick