Frustration Grows in Crash Recovery


As relatives of the 230 people aboard TWA Flight 800 grew increasingly frustrated and angry at delays in retrieving the victims' bodies, officials in charge of the recovery operation acknowledged Sunday that they had little to show for their fourth full day at sea.

Although one additional body was pulled from the ocean--the first since Thursday--an important underwater video camera malfunctioned, hampering workers' ability to look more closely at what they believed was a trail of wreckage and a large piece of the airplane on the ocean floor. And once again there was no sign of the flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders--the so-called black boxes that might provide important clues to the cause of the crash.

The 500 Coast Guard, Navy and law enforcement personnel conducting the round-the-clock search also were frustrated, despite finding the breeze and seas calmer than in days just after the crash. White caps still made it difficult for aerial spotters to differentiate wave crests from floating debris, and tidal drift hampered efforts to keep track of the airplane insulation and clothing that had been spotted earlier.

Investigators said they had succeeded in obtaining detailed information about passengers on Flight 800, the jetliner's trip to John F. Kennedy International Airport from Athens, and cargo handlers and maintenance workers who had access to the plane.

"We continue to move the ball, certainly in terms of mounting information," said James Kallstrom, an assistant FBI director. He declined to elaborate.

But, frustration and fatigue crossing his face, Kallstrom conceded: "We did not move the ball in terms of getting the wreckage."

As investigators worked to determine whether the crash of the Paris-bound Boeing 747 into the Atlantic Ocean nine miles off Long Island's south shore was the result of a monstrous mechanical or human failure or a criminal act, such as the planting of a bomb or the firing of a missile, there were these developments:

* Vice President Al Gore held out the hope that what may be a large piece of fuselage on the ocean floor can be raised within two days. Investigators have focused their attention on what they described as a large trail of material, which they presume is wreckage, detected on the ocean floor.

* Suffolk County, N.Y., Medical Examiner Charles Wetli said the autopsies he has performed so far have provided no evidence of a bombing. But officials noted that the lack of evidence might simply mean that those bodies recovered so far were too far away from a blast for it to have left signs. Completing the work is "an arduous, tedious task," he said, because "we are dealing with bodies that have been very seriously mutilated."

* Memorial services for the victims were held from Long Island to Los Angeles, including in Montoursville, Pa., a small town from which 21 people, including 16 students, had departed for a high school French club visit to France, via TWA Flight 800.

Kallstrom said searchers at sea continued to work against time in their efforts.

"We're racing against an emotional clock, for the poor victims," he said.

Members of the victims' families, currently gathered in a Ramada Inn near Kennedy airport, are being offered a trip today to Long Island's south shore. They may visit the Coast Guard station from which the work of six cutters and smaller boats is being coordinated. Or, they may be invited to fly over the crash site by helicopter.

In addition, a delegation was going to be escorted to the medical examiner's office, to help them understand the scope of the operation there.

The Search

In their search for wreckage, military personnel deployed high-technology sonar devices, which send signals to the ocean floor to map the surface and any objects on it. They said they used the underwater video camera for a while before realizing it was not working properly.

"The more we know about what is underneath the water by using the equipment we have, the more that can be done when we do put divers in the water," Navy Lt. Cmdr. Gordon Hume said. But without specific targets to explore, Navy divers remained ashore Sunday, officials said.

Robert Francis, the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said he hoped divers would be sent into the water today "and start to hitch up and pull up wreckage," once sunken pieces of the airplane are located.

"Substantial pieces of the fuselage [are] what's going to tell us what happened," he said.

With only 1% of the airliner recovered, he said, "we do not have the parts of the aircraft where we would expect to find telltale evidence." Such parts include the cargo hold, engines and pieces of the plane near the engine, he said.

The aircraft was engulfed in flames as it fell from 13,700 feet half an hour after its departure from Kennedy airport. But the fireball was presumably the 165,000 pounds of jet fuel the plane was estimated to be carrying and not necessarily the flames of an explosive device.

The locations of the flight-data and voice recorders remained key targets of the units at sea.

But officials were stymied when a machine known as a "pinger locater system" failed to pick up any signals emitted from the two missing black boxes, which are actually painted orange for visibility. The failure to pick up such a signal could be caused either because the devices, which are built to begin transmitting "pinging" signals upon contact with water, did not work or because the boxes are buried in sand or beneath wreckage that could mute their signals.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Linnon said winds and drifting tides over the last two days were making it increasingly difficult to keep an exact focus on where the wreckage and bodies had come to rest. They also forced the recovery team to expand the 500-square-mile area it has been searching.

"We know roughly where it went down," said Linnon, who worked on the recovery of the Korean Airlines jet that was shot down in 1983 over the ocean by a Soviet fighter plane near the Kamchatka Peninsula.

"This is a huge ocean out here. Clearly the weather is OK to put divers in. But where do you put them? We really need to locate all of these things, like portions of the fuselage and the cargo areas, before we put them in."

He said searchers had found a 4-mile debris field about 25 miles offshore, where the ocean rose in swells reaching 5 feet and the wind blew at 20 knots. The swath of wreckage contained no substantial items, and none was recovered during the day Sunday, officials said.

The Bodies

Throughout the day, the augmented staff of the Suffolk County medical examiner's office continued to identify crash victims and conduct autopsies on the 100 bodies that have been retrieved. By Sunday evening, 46 had been positively identified and 40 families notified. Among the identified victims were two Californians, Melinda Torche of Mission Viejo and Steven Graham of Napa.

Wetli said the process was going slowly, even with an expanded staff, in part because he still had not received all of the documents needed to help identify victims. So far, he said he had only 147 dental records and 32 fingerprint cards. In addition, only 66 families had provided photographs to help in the identifications, he said.

"Looking at one photograph led to a very rapid identification," he said.

Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) added to the steady drumbeat of criticism of the medical examiner's pace in making the identifications. To that, Wetli replied: "I think before people begin criticizing the system, of which they probably know little from firsthand experience, they first of all should get some training in it and realize what the problems are."

The Families

More than 2,000 friends and relatives of the victims attended the ecumenical and multilingual prayer service Sunday afternoon in Hangar 208 at Kennedy airport.

Family members, wearing white ribbons or colored buttons to designate them as such, began arriving by bus and car at 3 p.m. The interior of the otherwise drab-gray building was draped in blue cloth and festooned with flowers and American flags. As mourners filed through the doorways, employees of TWA handed each a white rose.

Describing the ceremony, from which the media were barred, the Rev. Eugene Tappas said: "There was a great outpouring of love and community. Everybody was there to say we care in various languages.

"It was a beautiful moment. In a city we consider jaded, there was an outpouring of love from a mixture of color and creed."

Carey Hutter, 29, whose friend and neighbor Chris Simon, 24, of Queens was killed in the crash, said the ceremony helped him gain "closure."

"I feel a lot more collected at the end than at the beginning," he said. "There was a communal sense inside. I get a feeling the whole city is coming together, rallying toward healing."

Aside from whatever comfort the prayer service provided, it offered a break from what has become a daily existence of waiting for the bodies of loved ones to be recovered, identified and released to funeral homes.

The families' anger spilled out again Sunday during a meeting with a representative of the medical examiner's office and later in conversations with reporters.

"After four days these people are still in the water. There's no hope in getting them back. We got nothing. We see nothing. We are going to go home Sunday with a casket with just a name on it," said Antonio Licari, from upstate New York, whose 36-year-old nephew was on board. "Everybody here is angry. We want to get a body. We want to get out of here."

Frank Minerva, whose cousin Giuseppe Mercurio of Palo del Colle, Italy, was a passenger, directed his anger at the attention authorities have been paying to retrieving the recording devices.

"Maybe they need to know about it, but we don't. All we want is our family," he said.

Dottie Brier, American Red Cross mental health disaster specialist, said extreme anger was a natural stage in coming to grips with such a tragedy, following shock, bewilderment, denial of feelings, confusion stemming from the lack of firm knowledge and sadness.

"It takes a long time for these things to work out," she said. "It's much more intense when the death is sudden, as this tragedy was. We are encouraging people to express their feelings. When they go back home they will continue with their grief reactions. It could last a year or two years."

Even on this, the fourth full day after the crash, stories about personal loss continued to spill forth.

One came from Heidi Snow, whose fiance, Michel Breistroff, of France, died in the crash.

She said he had proposed marriage to her at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, barely two hours before the plane burst into flames and plunged into the ocean. Ironically, the two were drawn together by the sea, having met on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., two years ago.

Snow said Saturday that she spent the day at Jones Beach with Breistroff's parents.

They chose the seaside setting because "I met him on the Atlantic Ocean." And there, by the water, "we sat quietly, and remembered him."

Times staff writers Ronald J. Ostrow in New York, Mary Williams Walsh in Athens and John J. Goldman, Lisa Meyer and James Gerstenzang contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World