Greek and Italian authorities believe that a known Arab woman terrorist planted the time bomb that blasted a hole in a TWA jetliner outside Athens on Wednesday afternoon, killing four Americans, a police spokesman said Thursday.
The woman, traveling under the name of May Elias Mansour, took a dawn flight on the same Boeing 727 from Cairo to Athens and occupied the fateful window seat--No. 10F--under which the bomb is believed to have been affixed, said the spokesman, who requested anonymity.
He said that Mansour left the Rome-bound flight in Athens at 8:30 a.m. and waited in the airport transit lounge, where she did not have to face a customs, immigration or major security check. At 3:19 p.m., she boarded Middle East Airlines Flight 254 to Beirut.
Mansour, who Italian authorities had said earlier was a known terrorist and explosives expert, was therefore present in the airline transit lounge when Flight 840 from Rome safely touched down only a few hundred yards away--saved by its pilot after the mid-afternoon explosion at 15,000 feet.
A Colombia-born American citizen, Alberto Ospina of Stratford, Conn., was sitting in seat 10F when the explosion occurred, blowing him out of the plane to his death. Three other Americans from Annapolis, Md., Dimitra Stylian, 52; her daughter, Maria Klug, 25, and Klug’s 9-month-old daughter, Dimitra, seated nearby, were either blown through the 9-foot by 3-foot hole left by the explosion in the right fuselage or sucked through it by wind and air pressure.
A Greek shepherd led police to three of the bodies, which landed near Argos, about 60 miles south of Athens, along with one seat and debris from the plane. The fourth body was found in the sea nearby.
The possibility that a terrorist on an earlier leg of the flight placed the bomb in the plane was first voiced by Italian airport security officials in Rome.
They said that the passenger listed on the early morning flight from Cairo under the name of Mansour--at first thought to be a male--was believed to be a terrorist explosives expert suspected in an attempt to bomb an Alitalia airliner on a flight to Rome from Istanbul, Turkey, in 1983. On that occasion, a bomb was planted in luggage dispatched on the Rome-bound Italian airliner and scheduled to be shipped onward to New York aboard a Pan American World Airways flight from Rome.
The bomb was found and defused after the person who checked the luggage failed to board the New York flight.
Italian Interior Minister Oscar Luigi Scalfaro confirmed the police reports when he said, “It is certain that the suspect person, who is on file as a terrorist, got on in Cairo and got off in Athens, occupying in the airplane the exact seat where the explosion occurred.”
Scalfaro, who spoke to reporters after a meeting with Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, refused to elaborate on that statement.
But Italian police sources also linked Mansour to a bomb explosion at Rome’s Leonardo da Vince airport in July, 1985, that injured 15 people. That blast was caused by explosives in luggage that arrived from Athens en route to Madrid.
The Greek police spokesman dismissed the early contradiction over the Italian report of a suspected male terrorist and the suspect woman passenger, saying that Greece is working in full cooperation with Italy and with the American FBI on the Mansour angle of the investigation.
Ever since the hijacking here of TWA Flight 847 to Beirut last June, the governments of Greece, Italy and Egypt have been extremely sensitive to charges that terrorists smuggled arms and explosives aboard airplanes at their international airports.
An Egyptian official who confirmed that a female passenger listing herself as May Mansour was on the early morning TWA Cairo-to-Athens flight was reported in Athens to have dismissed the Greek-Italian suspicion that she planted the bomb as “silly, not meriting a reply.”
TWA headquarters in the United States also confirmed the presence of a passenger listed as Mansour on the dawn flight from Cairo. The Boeing 727, which TWA bases in Athens, flies a daily shuttle run from Cairo to Athens to Rome, connecting with trans-Europe and transatlantic flights, and then from Rome to Athens to Cairo, mostly bringing passengers from a major TWA jumbo jet flight that originates in Los Angeles and flies to Rome via New York.
TWA Capt. Richard D. Petersen, 54, who was hailed in Athens as a hero after safely guiding his crippled plane to the ground after the deadly mid-air explosion, said that the three-city shuttle flight each day completes its run from Cairo departure to Cairo return in 12 hours and 15 minutes.
Petersen, a 30-year flier and Korean War veteran, said the explosion in his plane with 122 people aboard was “just like being near the artillery when they set off one of the guns. It was terribly loud and earth shattering.”
In two brief news conferences at Athens’ Hellenikon International Airport, Petersen agreed with the authorities’ preliminary conclusion that the bomb was placed under a passenger seat. “The explosion was above the floor,” he said, citing the numerous minor leg wounds of nearby passengers as proof. “It looked like it must have been beneath a seat.”
Although the Greek police have primary responsibility for investigating the cause of the explosion, they said they have welcomed 18 agents of the FBI and eight specialists from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to take an active role in the case.
Petersen and other members of the crew were delayed six hours in their scheduled appearance at a news conference while FBI and FAA experts questioned them, according to TWA European spokesman Stephen Heckscher.
Finally appearing with cabin crew members Catherine Erickson, 30, an eight-year TWA veteran, Luciano Rodocanaci, a 23-year flight crew employee, and two recently recruited stewardesses, Cindy Purdy and Karen Cavanaugh, Petersen said that he first thought the explosion was caused by a window popping out of the pressurized plane. “It sounded a helluva loud bang, like a shotgun going off next to your ear,” he said.
Vietnam veteran Dennis Taylor, who now works as a flight engineer with the airline and was flying as a passenger aboard the plane, “acted as my damage control officer, running back and forth telling me what was going on,” Petersen said.
He said that even when the crew knew that a hole had been blown in the side of the aircraft, “We didn’t know we had lost anyone. There was so much debris.”
Some passengers panicked and ran from the tourist section in the back of the Boeing 727 to the first-class section in front, demanding to be let out of the plane while it was still in flight, said stewardess Erickson.
She said she managed to calm “those who had fled the scene” and get them back into seats in the tourist cabin with their safety belts fastened.
Petersen said that during the 13 minutes that it took him to guide the plane into the Athens airport after the explosion, he had to use unusual amounts of engine power to stabilize the craft, which was yawing as a result of the extraordinary drag caused by the hole in the fuselage and the torn metal protruding from it.
During the critical minutes of landing, crewmen moved passengers away from the gash in the fuselage and brought clean white table linen from the first-class section to wrap the wounds of the eight or nine passengers aboard who were hurt. Doctors on board the flight as passengers examined the injured and determined that none were in grave condition, Petersen said.
Petersen said that while anything was possible, he thought it was unlikely that the explosive device could have been secreted aboard the plane at an earlier point of its day’s journey, because the cabin was searched at least once and usually twice at each stop by ground and cabin crew.
“Also there were two different flight deck crews that did the search,” he added. “It’s unlikely that both would have missed.”
In Rome, officials said that all passengers, luggage and carry-on baggage were subjected to the normal X-ray and metal detector checks before being allowed on board the TWA flight. They added that the plane was serviced and cleaned in Rome under the inspection of security officials.
However, intelligence experts in Athens said it is possible that the plastic explosive device might have been attached to a life preserver under the seat and thus escaped detection.
A group calling itself the Arab Revolutionary Cells claimed responsibility for placing the bomb on the TWA plane, but investigators in Italy said they believe the name to be a cover for whatever group is actually responsible.
Speculation has focused on Libya because of the latter’s recent confrontation with the U.S. 6th Fleet in the Gulf of Sidra off the Libyan coast. However, Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi denounced the attack as terrorism and denied any responsibility.
Other prime suspects include the group of Abu Nidal, a Libyan-backed Palestinian terrorism leader based in Syria, who recently threatened to attack U.S. targets and travelers in the Middle East and Europe.
Times staff writer Michael Ross, in Rome, contributed to this story.