EAST MORICHES, N.Y. -- A small chip from a food service cart, removed from the body of a TWA Flight 800 victim, has led investigators to believe the blast occurred in or near the cart, and they are focusing on how food supplies were loaded onto the aircraft in New York, sources close to the investigation said yesterday.
Investigators traced the chip from the body of a first-class passenger seated in the front section of the plane to a side panel of a food service cart, sources say.
While large pieces of debris continued to be hauled from the ocean floor yesterday, officials acknowledged that the best evidence of a blast often comes in the tiniest pieces close to the source of an explosion.
When Pan Am Flight 103 exploded in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland, for example, a thumbnail-size piece of circuit board embedded in clothing was the key piece of evidence as to the cause.
Sources say finding out who handled cargo before the plane's departure from New York might be a key to help unravel the cause of the July 17 plane crash that killed 230 people.
And anyone involved with the plane's food service is central to the investigation, according to one highly placed federal source.
Meanwhile, early tests have found no bomb residue on a piece of the front cargo door, the Associated Press reported, dealing a setback to investigators looking for proof that an explosive brought down the Boeing 747.
Eleven minutes into the flight, the plane's cabin crew members may have begun to serve drinks, but it is unlikely they would have been rolling food carts into the first-class aisle, said a source familiar with TWA's procedures.
For a piece of shrapnel from a cart to fly into a passenger's body, it may have had to penetrate the cabinet in which it was stowed and needed to be near the source of the explosion, the source said.
Officials yesterday declined to confirm a report that pieces of china, possibly from first-class cups and plates, had been removed from the bodies of victims by medical examiners.
So far, 184 bodies have been recovered.
Sources said yesterday that divers have spotted pieces of the cockpit. Investigators believe the nose of the plane, where the carts are sometimes stowed, is buried in sand at the bottom of one of the densest piles of debris.
Mechanical failure has been nearly ruled out as a cause of the crash, mostly because of drastic differences between TWA Flight 800 and previous aircraft crashes that involved engine explosions or fuel tank fumes.
However, Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, has refused to publicly rule out the possibility of mechanical failure, saying, "There is a first time for everything."
Investigators have theorized that a bomb set on a timing device detonated off the shore of eastern Long Island instead of farther out to sea because the plane's departure was delayed by one hour.
Pub Date: 8/02/96