NEW YORK -- Shortly after Trans World Airlines Flight 800 crashed on July 17, the airline said that only about 40 employees had had direct contact with the airplane in the three hours that it had waited on the ground at Kennedy International Airport.
In the weeks since, law enforcement officials investigating the crash have found that dozens and perhaps hundreds of other people could have entered the baggage area, the tarmac around the plane or parts of the terminal through which bags checked for the flight were transported.
A senior law enforcement official, who declined to be identified, said it was not even possible to estimate how many people could have come into contact with the plane or its baggage as it waited for takeoff. That fact, he said, will complicate the inquiry if investigators determine the plane was downed by a bomb.
Investigators have not concluded what brought down Flight 800. But their inquiry has already found that security at Kennedy Airport is surprisingly porous -- even in the weeks since the crash.
The investigators remain publicly noncommittal about whether a bomb, missile or mechanical malfunction destroyed the Boeing 747. Privately, they lean toward the theory that a bomb exploded in the forward cargo hold, which contained passenger luggage.
Investigators are examining the path that baggage follows from passengers' hands to the plane's cavernous hold, searching for openings that a saboteur might have exploited.
Under the airport's security rules, only a limited number of employees, holding appropriate passes, are allowed to walk into areas moving or storing baggage bound for international flights such as TWA 800.
That system, enforced by a limited number of Port Authority guards, can be easily circumvented by people holding passes for other terminals, or by those with no passes at all, according to security experts, investigators and a former TWA executive.
Baggage for international flights at the TWA terminal is checked at curbside or at the airline's counter. It moves by conveyor belt through the building to a baggage room, where it is sorted and loaded onto wagons for transport to the waiting jetliner.
No one guards the conveyor belt, the baggage room or the wagons, which often sit on the tarmac unattended, according to the former TWA executive, who declined to be identified. The former executive said protecting the baggage was chiefly the responsibility of airfield employees whose primary duty was to load the baggage canisters aboard the aircraft.
Mick Donahue, a former CIA anti-terrorism expert who runs a security company, said: "The airlines typically assume that the secure area is secure, and that their employees can keep their eye on the baggage while they do their other jobs. Neither of those assumptions is necessarily true."
Donahue said the baggage-handling arrangements at U.S. airports posed "glaring problems," adding, "It's not realistic to expect people to be screening access or working security when their primary job is to load cargo or pave potholes in the parking lot."
Pub Date: 8/11/96