NEW YORK -- After picking apart some of the wadded remains of the cockpit of Trans World Airlines Flight 800, investigators concluded yesterday that the catastrophic explosion that destroyed the Boeing 747 most likely did not originate inside the cockpit or in the electronics bay beneath it.
They were partly persuaded by a surprising discovery found in the ton of wreckage that had been the jet's cockpit: The circles of glass that cover many of the cockpit dials, and even a light bulb above a staircase that led to the plane's upper deck, had somehow survived the crash intact.
"You have this mass of wreckage, and yet things from that area are relatively the way they were before the accident," said Robert T. Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "There is no indication at this point of anything in that area that would give cause for concern in terms of something having initiated there."
A senior investigator who looked at the cockpit wreckage yesterday said that one of the plane's altimeters -- instruments that show the plane's altitude -- was frozen with a reading of 13,100 feet.
Altimeters are mechanically driven instruments that do not depend on electricity to work, so the finding suggests that they continued to function for several seconds after the initial explosion, at about 13,700 feet.
Federal investigators continued their search for the cause of the crash yesterday, the 20th day since Flight 800 exploded in midair off Long Island and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 230 people on board.
On the seas and on the shore, investigators said they made a modest amount of progress, though they still have not determined if the plane crash was caused by a bomb, a missile attack or a mechanical malfunction.
At the former Grumman hangar in Calverton, investigators began piecing together the fractured parts of the airplane. They also pulled about a third of the cockpit wreckage off the 1-ton ball of metal, essentially unwrapping it.
James K. Kallstrom, assistant director of the FBI's New York office, said he had sent many agents who had been working in Suffolk County back to their home offices, mostly in New York City. Criminal investigators are anxious for the cause to be determined, he said, adding: "We are in a bit of a waiting pattern."
And, in the waters off Shinnecock Inlet in Long Island, salvage workers turned their attention to the area of the Atlantic Ocean where they believe the first pieces of Flight 800, including pieces of luggage, fell into the ocean, an area several miles southwest of where the cockpit was retrieved over the weekend.
The area is called Debris Area 3, but that is something of a misnomer. In fact, the area is now being seen as the first area, closest to Kennedy International Airport, where wreckage and luggage fell from the aircraft. Officials said the length of the debris line stretched about five miles northeast, roughly parallel to Flight 800's flight path.
Navy Rear Adm. Edward Kristensen said divers had begun searching the area, and he said that there were "isolated instances of luggage being seen in Area Three."
Neither Kristensen nor Francis would comment on the significance of the discovery, or on whether it bolstered the theory that a bomb, secreted in the forward cargo hold in a piece of luggage, had brought down the plane, blowing pieces of luggage out of the cargo hold.
However, some investigators, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said that they are trying to determine if the luggage and debris found in Area Three were the first parts of the plane to hit the water after the initial explosion on board.
On the ocean floor in debris area three, divers yesterday began collecting pieces of wreckage, luggage and pieces of clothing, placing them in baskets that were then lifted to the surface,
Officials said no bodies were recovered yesterday. There are still 35 unrecovered bodies of victims.
Pub Date: 8/07/96