Lab to Test 747 Debris, Suitcase for Bomb Traces
Investigators probing the disintegration of Pan Am Flight 103 sent a suitcase and pieces of wreckage to a specialized explosives laboratory Monday to look for traces of a bomb, the chief investigator announced.
The statement by Chief Inspector of Accidents Donald Cooper marked the clearest indication so far that investigators have reason to suspect a bomb was involved in Wednesday night’s midair breakup of the Boeing 747. All of the 258 aboard, mostly Americans, were killed, along with an unknown number of residents of the Scottish town of Lockerbie, where the plane fell. At least 10 townspeople are still missing.
Chance of Structure Failure
But Cooper, in a statement read on his behalf in Lockerbie, said investigators also are pursuing the possibility that the aircraft broke up at 31,000 feet because of structural failure.
“Although, because of the fragmented and scattered nature of the wreckage, the investigation of the structural aspect of the accident is a slow process, no evidence of a structural failure has so far been found,” he said. “However, the possibility of such a failure is still being actively investigated.”
Cooper, from the Department of Transport’s air accident investigation branch, gave no explanation for singling out one suitcase and particular pieces of wreckage for examination by explosives experts. A Department of Transport spokesman also declined to elaborate.
Meanwhile, a former chief air-accident inspector told the Times of London that failure to find the 747’s left wing led him to suspect that the breakup was caused by structural failure. William Tench told the newspaper that this suspicion is reinforced by lack of firm evidence that a bomb went off before the plane crashed.
One wing, carrying a nearly full load of aviation fuel, crashed into Lockerbie, exploding on impact and destroying a number of houses and cars. But the other wing has not been found, raising the possibility that it may have ripped off and fallen into the sea, about 10 miles from the town.
“If the wing had broken off at the root, the disruption of the electrical system would have been substantial, possibly precluding” a distress call, Tench was quoted as saying.
According to reports from Lockerbie, investigators have concentrated their efforts on the nose cone and part of the first-class cabin, the only large section of the aircraft to survive relatively intact.
This portion of the jumbo jet also has been considered particularly important for investigators because it contains the flight deck and, underneath it, an electronics bank that powers much of the control and communications equipment. Aviation experts have identified this part as a sensitive area for either a bomb or metal failure.
The wreckage and suitcase went to the Defense Ministry’s armament research and development agency at Ft. Halstead, south of London, the announcement said.
The facility is known for research into explosions. Cooper said scientists there have been assigned to seek residue from explosive material or other evidence, such as metal twisted in certain ways, that might indicate a bomb.
The bomb theory emerged after an Islamic group claimed responsibility and flight recorders showed that the pilots apparently had no warning before the plane broke up suddenly. In addition, the U.S. government said it had been warned of a threat against a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt to New York, although the FBI later concluded that the tip, made in a phone call to the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, Finland, was a hoax.
Flight 103 originated in Frankfurt and changed aircraft in London.
No Word on Autopsies
British authorities directing the investigation have not said whether they are performing autopsies on the recovered bodies, which might indicate whether passengers inhaled explosives residue from the cabin atmosphere.
About 240 bodies have been recovered, and soldiers and police officers continued Monday to comb the hills in a cold rain.
Police at Lockerbie, meanwhile, said they arrested an area resident after receiving reports that civilians were sneaking past police lines to loot wreckage strewn about the region.
The man, 28, was not identified, pending a decision whether to bring formal charges.
Relatives of the passengers continued to arrive in Lockerbie. Police and social workers have been escorting them to view the wreckage.
“I’ve walked among the wreckage twice,” said Brian Barry, an American relative of a crash victim, in an interview on British television. “Unless you’ve seen it, no explanation is possible. And if you’ve seen it, no explanation is necessary.”