NEW YORK -- With the underwater inquiry into the explosion of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 failing to yield definitive answers about the cause of the crash, investigators say their best hope for a break in the case may lie above ground in the other, seldom-discussed prong of their inquiry -- the hunt for human suspects.
It is a climate in which any gap in a person's biography or any abrupt change in personal or financial status is examined, no matter how seemingly incidental or far-fetched. Veterans of previous cases say that under such scrutiny almost anyone -- passengers, airport workers and others with access to the plane -- can catch investigators' attention.
Federal agents have held off interviewing the families of the 230 passengers and crew members who died when Flight 800 broke apart after takeoff from Kennedy International Airport on July 17.
But through record checks and inquiries into tips from landlords, friends and others, investigators have identified several potential suspects or targets of a bombing -- leads that have already been examined and discounted.
Just as investigators looking at the physical evidence began with theories about the cause of the crash and then knocked them down one by one as parts were recovered from the ocean, as they proceed with the human side of their investigation they are not closing in on a theory so much as eliminating possibilities.
The process will intensify as the FBI closely examines the passengers for possible suspects or targets, and continues to look at those with access to the plane.
Investigators said they have already followed these trails without finding any real clues. They have:
Taken a closer look at an Algerian passenger identified on TWA's list only by his last name. The 1985 explosion of an Air-India flight off the coast of Ireland was traced to a bomb packed in a suitcase that was checked by a "Singh," someone who never boarded the flight.
Checked out the personal life of a New York City flight attendant who was estranged from her husband and who had a generous life insurance policy.
Questioned associates of a Sri Lankan airport employee with a background in chemical engineering who tried and failed to get a job with TWA shortly before the crash and who quit his job and abruptly moved to Angola a few days after the explosion.
Investigators say that none of these people is now viewed as a potential suspect or target of a bomb attack. But the scope of the investigation is no more focused.
Could someone on the plane's previous flight from Athens to New York have hidden explosives in a seat cushion? Was a passenger the victim of an insurance fraud, an enemy or an estranged spouse? Did an airport employee in Athens or New York plant a bomb aboard the Boeing 747?
After the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, investigators chased down dozens of innocent details from passengers' lives that made them seem like plausible suspects or targets.
"Almost everyone on the plane, almost everyone you ever met, has something that can get your imagination going," said an FBI agent who worked on the Pan Am case and spoke on condition of anonymity.
"A recent fight, a divorce, a business deal, an overseas connection -- when you don't know what you're looking for, it's easy to see all kinds of possibilities."
In the end, none of the suspicions in the Flight 103 investigation was confirmed. The bomb was in a bag checked by a terrorist who never boarded the plane.
In the Pan Am case, the agents' task was eased when forensic experts determined that the blast occurred in a specific cargo bin containing luggage belonging to a small number of passengers.
Those investigating the TWA crash have no such advantage. The debris from Flight 800 was spread over a miles-long stretch of ocean off the coast of Long Island.
Investigators have not said Flight 800 was brought down by a bomb, but that is their leading theory. They have determined that the explosion did not occur in the cargo hold, the cockpit or the galley.
They now suspect that it occurred in or under a passenger's seat or in a bathroom, food cart or overhead luggage bin.
Pub Date: 8/18/96