EAST MORICHES, N.Y. -- A recovery effort including 500 workers and a flotilla of 30 vessels pulled victims from the cold waters off Long Island yesterday as investigators began their search into why Paris-bound TWA Flight 800 exploded spectacularly minutes after takeoff Wednesday night, killing 230.
At the White House, President Clinton called the downing of the jetliner a "terrible, terrible tragedy."
And with clues scarce, Clinton repeatedly urged Americans not to presume that the crash was the work of terrorists.
"We do not know what caused this tragedy," the president said. "We will determine what happened."
The FBI-New York Police Department Joint Terrorist Task Force assumed leadership of the investigation, but officials stressed that this did not imply any conclusion about the cause of the crash.
The task force will work alongside the National Transportation Safety Board, which routinely investigates airline accidents.
Through yesterday, fears rose that terrorists were responsible for the crash -- though White House and State Department officials took pains to say they had no evidence of foul play.
Officials said the possibilities under investigation range from a catastrophic mechanical failure that ignited the airplane's 250,000 pounds of fuel, to a brazen act of terrorism such as a bomb secreted on board or a surface-to-air missile fired from below.
Law enforcement officials involved in the investigation said they had based their speculation about a missile attack largely on the accounts of some witnesses who reported seeing flaming streaks and flashes of light before the Boeing 747 exploded.
ABC News reported that an Arabic newspaper received a warning of an attack on an American target Wednesday from the same group that claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed five Americans in Saudi Arabia in November.
But the U.S. State Department said it did not view the letter as a specific warning.
"To us it seemed to be a general political tract. We don't see it as a specific threat," department spokesman Nicholas Burns said of the letter to Al Hayat, an Arabic-language newspaper published in London.
Coast Guard and federal aviation officials who surveyed the crash area, about 10 miles south of the eastern edge of Long Island, said the plane had broken into small pieces, some sinking and some floating across a 200-square-mile search area.
They did not rule out the possibility that a bomb had brought down the jumbo jet.
But Robert Francis, vice chairman of the NTSB, cautioned: "We have no evidence at this point that this was not an accident.
"There's a lot of wreckage out there, and until we can start piecing it back together, we're not going to know what happened," Francis said.
By late yesterday, searchers had recovered more than 100 bodies, many of them charred.
Refrigerator trucks were brought to East Moriches, where a temporary morgue was set up. Remains were brought to the shore on rafts, and workers in white jumpsuits put them in body bags.
"It's still being treated as a potential crime scene by the FBI," said New York Gov. George E. Pataki, who visited the recovery command center.
At Kennedy Airport and airports in Paris and Rome -- the plane's final destination -- shellshocked relatives of the victims were ushered into private areas and comforted by counselors and clergy.
Two busloads of people arrived in New York from Montoursville, Pa., where townspeople mourned the loss of 16 members of the high school French club and five chaperons.
The plane's two "black box" recorders, which provide crucial information to investigators, haven't been found, Francis said.
One of the boxes measures data such as altitude and speed. The other records the crew's cockpit conversations.
A team of divers was brought in yesterday to begin searching for pieces of wreckage that sank in about 140 feet of water off Moriches Inlet, a picturesque spot with quiet beaches and marshy knolls.
The coastal town of East Moriches yesterday found itself the host of grim recovery efforts. Police turned the town's baseball field into a parking lot for reporters and photographers.
The TWA crash was the latest in a succession of recent airline disasters.
In May, 110 people died when a ValuJet plane crashed into the Everglades. Earlier this month, two Delta Air Line passengers were killed on the ground when parts of an engine sliced into a plane's fuselage.
The first reports of the TWA crash came about 8: 40 p.m. Wednesday from witnesses as far away as Connecticut, who reported seeing an inferno in the sky.
Two crews of New York Air National Guard flights witnessed the explosion. They "saw the fireball twisting as it came down, leaving a corkscrew trail of smoke," said Lt. Col. Chuck Stueve, who talked to them afterward. One crew radioed a mayday to the Coast Guard.
Civilian boaters swarmed to the scene, snagging flotsam and delivering it to investigators ashore.
Racing over the glassy black water on a calm, dark night, Brian Kelly's boat was one of the first to get there.
"It became very real when we saw the boat right next to us pull out that first body. It was a lady with a white skirt," Kelly said.
Boater Frank Panzarella of Dix Hills, who lugged ashore a flight attendant's jump seat and two doors that apparently came from an overhead compartment, said the Coast Guard was especially interested in his other find: a soot-covered hinge, apparently from one of the compartments. Police whisked Panzarella away.
Recovery crews worked through Wednesday night, as jet fuel burned eerily on the dark sea, and all day yesterday.
Four police helicopters and a Coast Guard search plane soared overhead, hunting for survivors. By day's end, none had been found.
A few journalists were allowed to survey the search area on Coast Guard rafts and boats. Along with a handful of rescue workers, they came ashore yesterday afternoon with bleak reports.
"All I can think of to describe it is, it was like a sandbox with little toys," said Walter Imparato, a CNN photographer who spent the morning on a 20-foot raft.
"You'd see these personal items -- I saw a tennis shoe, a sandal, and a picture of a woman's face -- floating here and there in the debris.
"There was a big oil slick and I could smell what I think was fuel," Imparato said.
The largest sections of debris visible were a piece of one wing and an airway duct, possibly from the plane's fuselage, said Imparato, who helped salvage workers haul the duct to shore.
Throughout the day, townspeople and witnesses to the crash came to the edge of the search area and were often surrounded by the 200 or so reporters and photographers.
One of the witnesses was Sven Faret, a private pilot from nearby xTC Plainview, who was out for a pleasure flight when he saw "the largest fire I ever saw in the sky."
He was about 11 miles away in his single-engine Aero Commander when the explosion occurred.
"I thought, is this some kind of military test drill? It was a very bewildering sight," he said.
Faret said he got three calls last night from media outlets in Norway -- who called him because he has a Scandinavian first name. He speaks fluent Norwegian.
"They had seen my name on the Internet," Faret said. "This seems to be big news all over the world."
Workers had good weather and calm sea conditions on their side.
Francis, of the NTSB, confirmed that the plane was carrying a "small supply of blood," but he couldn't explain why the blood was on the plane or whether it might pose any health risks.
Pub Date: 7/19/96