NEW YORK -- The chief federal law enforcement official who is investigating the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 said yesterday that the piece of evidence needed to prove that a criminal act brought down the plane probably is no larger than a football and lost in the sand at the bottom of the Atlantic.
The official, James Kallstrom, assistant FBI director in New York, acknowledged in an interview that he and 1,000 additional investigators, divers, technicians and others would need a stroke of luck, "sort of like the lottery balls."
If wreckage holding clear forensic evidence is never found, Kallstrom said, the FBI may have to try to build a circum stantial criminal case. Right now, he added, the FBI has far too little evidence to do that, and as a result, the inquiry could last many months.
In the early days after Flight 800 crashed off Long Island on July 17, killing all 230 people aboard, Kallstrom repeatedly said that he was confident that investigators would determine the cause quickly. But even after investigators have encountered difficulties, Kallstrom continues to express optimism that the investigators would find the telling evidence.
Divers have retrieved more than half the wreckage from the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, and experts have told Kallstrom that conclusive forensic evidence of a bomb will be limited to an extremely small area -- a seat cushion, a patch of carpet or an even smaller bit of metal.
Because the wreckage has been under water for a month, some evidence has dissolved or washed away. If clear evidence is never found and a highly unusual mechanical malfunction is ruled out, Kallstrom said, the FBI will face the challenge of pursuing a circumstantial case. That, he conceded, could be as unsatisfying to jurors as it is to the public.
"We can't charge somebody with bombing an airplane if we can't show the airplane was bombed," he said. "If we get 99 percent of the plane up and we don't have anything, I don't know what we'd do."
In a two-hour interview in his office in lower Manhattan, Kallstrom, 53, who has been in the FBI for 26 years, detailed the methodical search for wreckage and explained why -- given that most investigators believe that a bomb brought down the plane -- it is so important to prove the cause of the crash. He said these were some of the factors: Most of the evidence and intelligence so far tends to support the possibility that a bomb destroyed the plane.
Investigators will not begin aggressively chasing possible suspects until the cause has been determined.
If chemical residue from an explosive is not found and confirmed by the FBI laboratory in Washington, investigators face a possibility that the only evidence of a crime would be forensic experts' inconclusive subjective analysis of the damage to metal debris.
Besides the relevance to a criminal inquiry, the official declaration of the cause would be important financially and politically for the aviation industry and the nation.
"I think the ramifications of whether this is an accident or a criminal act are huge," Kallstrom said. "I mean, it's who people are going to sue."
Kallstrom's immediate concern is to determine who may be responsible for the crash. But beyond that, the final determination of the cause could mean millions of dollars in legal liability for the airline or the companies that manufactured the plane and its parts.
Three weeks ago, President Clinton chartered a commission to examine whether the government should spend billions of dollars to buy new bomb detectors for U.S. airports. That initiative could lose whatever momentum it has if investigators determine that a bomb did not cause the crash.
Kallstrom said he was keenly aware of the competing pressures.
"Boeing doesn't want to have a failure," he said. "Pratt & Whitney doesn't want to have a failure. The pilots' association doesn't want to have pilot error. The stewardesses' union doesn't want anything they did to contribute to it. So, basically all those people want it to be a bomb or missile."
TWA and companies and insurers with interests in the airline may face significant costs.
If the authorities determine that a missile downed the plane, the airline's financial exposure would likely be minimal.
But if a bomb destroyed the plane, the liability faced by the company and its insurers could be staggering if officials determined that the airline did not do enough to secure the plane.
If the disaster proves to have been caused by structural or NTC mechanical failure, liability could fall on Boeing Co., the manufacturer of the 747-100, or Pratt & Whitney, which manufactured the engines, Kreindler added.
If a state-sponsored terrorist group planted a bomb, that could set off retaliation.
Those hypothetical questions hang on the determination that will be made jointly by Kallstrom and Robert T. Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. If no cause is conclusively determined and the FBI tries to build a circumstantial case, that would further complicate the liability issues.
Within 30 minutes of the crash, Kallstrom opened a command center at the bureau headquarters at 26 Federal Plaza, calling in dozens of agents from the New York metropolitan region. A news release issued within two hours said the FBI had started a criminal investigation.
The agency did that, Kallstrom said, to alert witnesses to report observations to the FBI.
Since that night, Kallstrom has set a high evidentiary threshold to be crossed before the crash can be declared a criminal act. A cornerstone is the discovery of forensic evidence of a bomb or missile.
Pub Date: 8/16/96