Western security officials on Monday surveyed the wreckage of an Austrian airliner that crashed in western Thailand and said they are nearly certain that the plane was downed by a bomb explosion.
"All the available evidence points to a bomb," one Western official said. "The pieces of the plane wreckage were literally tiny and spread out over a wide area."
"It was far, far worse than Lockerbie (in the way the wreckage was scattered)," said a Western airline official familiar with the investigation into the crash of a Pan American Boeing 747 that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988. The Pan Am plane, which carried 270 passengers and crew, was later found to have been downed by a bomb initially placed aboard a connecting flight in Frankfurt, Germany, apparently by terrorists from the Middle East.
Franz Karner, Hong Kong sales manager for Lauda Air, the airline that owned the Boeing 767-300 jet, told a news conference in the British colony Monday that the plane appeared to have been destroyed by an explosion and subsequent fireball on board. Asked if he thought it was a bomb, he replied, "It looks like it."
All 223 people aboard the plane were killed when it exploded in the air Sunday night and crashed into remote hilly jungles near the provincial town of Suphan Buri, about 120 miles northwest of Bangkok, Thai authorities said.
Another factor pointing to a bomb explosion was the speed with which the airliner was destroyed. The jet had taken off just 16 minutes before from Bangkok's Don Muang Airport, an intermediate stop on its flight to Vienna from Hong Kong. The pilot was given permission by the Bangkok tower to climb to 20,000 feet, and then the airliner simply vanished, according to control tower officials at Bangkok airport.
Rescue workers recovered 140 bodies from the wreckage Monday from the 1,500-foot heights in western Thailand. Officials recovered the plane's flight recorder, but the investigation was hampered by hundreds of Thais who rushed to the crash site to scavenge for valuables.
Speculating on possible sources of a bomb attack, Western airline officials in Bangkok said it has long been known that a disgruntled former employee of Lauda Air had repeatedly threatened to bomb the airline's offices and aircraft. The employee, whose name was not made public, was reportedly being sought by police.
"For an ex-airline official, it wouldn't be that hard to get a bomb on board," said one official. "It was the first thing that occurred to everyone."
Security officers noted that Lauda Air conducted no baggage screening in Bangkok, apparently secure in the belief that Middle East terrorists would not target the Austrian airline. Baggage for all airlines is thoroughly X-rayed as a matter of course before it is taken aboard in Hong Kong.
Austria maintains strict neutrality and, if anything, is considered among the most friendly of European countries to Arab regimes, including a number of radical governments in the Middle East that have been accused of supporting terrorism.
Vienna police Monday discounted another theory that the bomb may have been intended for a United Airlines flight and was placed on the Austrian plane by mistake. Lt. Col. Alfred Rupf, head of the criminal division of the Austrian police at Vienna International Airport, said that idea was based on misinterpretation of a call Vienna police received from an anonymous man speaking German with a German, rather than an Austrian, accent.
"It was probably an amateur detective," said Rupf, according to news agencies reporting from the Austrian capital.
They reported that Rupf said the caller explained that he had looked at the flight schedules and noticed a United flight was leaving Hong Kong about the same time as the Lauda Air flight; the caller expressed suspicion that the bomb was put on the wrong plane by mistake. "The caller wanted only to give us a tip on how the accident might have happened," Rupf said.
Officials in Bangkok, where security was stepped up, also misunderstood the call to have been about flights leaving Bangkok rather than Hong Kong; they expressed confusion, noting that the only United flight left Bangkok more than eight hours later. All American carriers using Bangkok airport carry out their own security searches of luggage.
Airline officials noted that Lauda Air, which was founded in 1982 by former world motor racing champion Niki Lauda, could be ruined financially by the explosion.
Even with insurance coverage on the $60-million aircraft, Lauda Air flies just a handful of scheduled flights from Vienna to the Far East. Fear of terrorism could cause passengers to cancel holiday plans, which would devastate the airline's earnings and threaten its survival, even with a short-term drop in revenue, the officials said.
Lauda on Monday said he was leaving for Thailand immediately to speak with investigators about the cause of the crash.
Questioned about the possible economic consequences for his airline, he replied: "The human tragedy is in the forefront now, and must be dealt with. When that has been done, and the cause of the disaster discovered, we can look at other consequences."
The Boeing jet was only 18 months old, one of two used by the airline on the Hong Kong route. Boeing officials said it was the first crash involving the two-engine airliner, which was introduced in 1982 as a fuel-saving answer to a model of the European-built Airbus.
Seattle-based Boeing is sending a team of investigators to Thailand to examine the crash site.
Lauda Air in Vienna said that 74 passengers and nine crew members were Austrian, the Associated Press reported. The pilot was Thomas Welch, who lived in Vienna but was said to be from Washington state. The other victims were 52 Hong Kong Chinese, 39 Thais, 10 Italians, seven Swiss, six Chinese, four Germans, three each from Yugoslavia, Portugal and Taiwan, two each from the United States, Britain, Hungary and the Philippines and one each from Poland, Turkey, Brazil and Australia.
The identities of the two American passengers were not immediately released.
Among the Thais was the governor of Chiang Mai province, Dr. Pairat Decharin, and his wife.
One of the British passengers was identified as Don MacIntosh, a Bangkok-based field adviser of the U.N. Drug Control Program, AP reported. A program official in Vienna, speaking anonymously, said: "We did not receive--and I am not aware of any threats that he ever received which would suggest he was a target" of a bombing.
Vast amounts of heroin flow through Thailand from the so-called Golden Triangle area where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War in mid-January, Western intelligence agencies said there was evidence that Bangkok was an important site for war-related terrorist activity. On Jan. 23, two Iraqis and two Jordanians were arrested in Bangkok in connection with the botched bombing of a U.S. library in Manila, which killed one Iraqi and injured another. The following day, the Los Angeles Times, citing unidentified sources, reported that Bangkok appeared to be a logistics center for Iraqi terrorist attacks in Asia. Authorities in Thailand played down the reports but implemented stricter security measures thereafter. Security at Hong Kong's Kai Tak International Airport, where Sunday's ill-fated Lauda Air flight originated, has always been tight, and authorities there have stepped up security checks since the Gulf War began.
10 Deadliest Acts of Aerial Sabotage
From 1949 to 1989, there were 47 incidents of explosions attributed to sabotage in which passengers or crew on commercial aircraft lost their lives, according to the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism. Here are the 10 worst incidents in terms of lives lost in which an airliner's destruction was attributed to a bomb or hijacking:
1. June 23, 1985: 329 killed when an Air-India Boeing 747 crashed off the coast of Ireland.
2. Dec. 21, 1988: 270 killed when a Pan Am Boeing 747 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.
3. Sept. 19, 1989: 171 killed when a DC-10 of the French airline UTA crashed into the Sahara in the West African nation of Niger.
4. Oct. 2, 1990: 128 killed when a hijacked Xiamen Airlines 737 crashed at Canton airport in southern China. The jet crashed into two parked planes, one filled with passengers awaiting takeoff.
5. Nov. 29, 1987: 115 killed on a Korean Airlines jet that blew up in mid-flight and crashed into the sea off Myanmar.
6. Sept. 23, 1983: 112 killed when a Gulf Air jet crashed 30 miles from Abu Dhabi, in the Persian Gulf.
7. Nov. 27, 1989: 107 killed in crash of an Avianca flight near Soacha, Colombia.
8. Sept. 8, 1974: 88 killed in a TWA jet that crashed into the Ionian Sea off the coast of Greece.
9. Jan. 1, 1976: 82 killed when a flight of the Lebanese carrier Middle East Airlines crashed in the desert between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
10. June 15, 1972: 81 killed in the crash of a Cathay Pacific Airways jet over the Central Highlands of Vietnam.