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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

228 Feared Dead in TWA Crash

NEW YORK -- Rescuers pulled more than 100 burned bodies from the waters off Long Island on Thursday as an FBI terrorism team investigated what caused a TWA jumbo jet to explode over the Atlantic shortly after takeoff. All 228 people aboard were apparently killed.

President Bill Clinton and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno warned against jumping to conclusions about what caused the plane to crash. But U.S. Representative Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said the FBI told him there were two possibilities: "Either that there was a bomb, or that the engine exploded and set a fuel tank on fire." Such an explosion and fire, however, has never happened on a 747, Schumer said.

A law enforcement official said that based on eyewitness accounts from Air National Guard pilots, the FBI told him it was "leaning more toward the possibility that it was a bomb that caused the plane to explode."

He added: "They are still investigating all other possibilities."

White House spokesman Mike McCurry said there had been "a variety of calls" claiming responsibility for the crash, but their credibility was doubtful.

Flight 800, a 25-year-old Boeing 747 bound for Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport from Kennedy Airport, exploded about 8:45 p.m. local time Wednesday and plunged into the ocean off Fire Island, a narrow strip of land that runs parallel to Long Island. It fell into 36-meter-deep water about 65 kilometers east of New York.

One of the plane's two "black boxes" had been recovered, said U.S. Representative Michael Forbes, a Long Island Republican. Federal investigators were not immediately available for comment and Forbes didn't know if the box was the voice or data recorder.

Wreckage and fuel on the water burned for hours as helicopters hovered. A C-130 transport plane circled, dropping parachute flares to illuminate the scene. Overnight, rescuers used infrared night-vision goggles to help spot bodies.

Fresh crews were brought in at daybreak.

By 8 a.m., rescuers had pulled more than 100 bodies from the water, some of them burned beyond recognition.

With a water temperature of 18 degrees Celsius and an air temperature of 23 C, officials estimated that survival would not be possible much beyond late Thursday morning.

Among those booked on the flight was a group of 16 students and five adults from a Pennsylvania high school French club.

Names of the passengers were not released. The crew's pilots, Captain Steve Snyder of Connecticut and co-pilot, Captain Ralph Kevorkian of California, had worked for TWA since the mid-'60s and were veteran 747 pilots.

One of the first private boats at the crash site came upon a macabre sight: a yellow TWA life jacket floating on the water. "It was inflated and it was buckled," said Jimmy Vaccaro, who hooked the empty jacket into the boat. "These things don't light and inflate by themselves -- you have to pull on it or blow through the tube."

But the U.S. Coast Guard said none of the bodies recovered wore life preservers, suggesting that the explosion indeed threats against TWA.

The National Transportation Safety Board was investigating along with the terrorism task force.

Oliver Revell, a former FBI official, noted that such a jet had never been destroyed in air by an explosion that was not sabotage.

If there was a bomb, said former CIA counterterrorism agent Vincent Cannistraro, "this is another notch up the ladder of terrorism. ... In the past year domestic aviation security has been tightened considerably."

Cannistraro said terrorists had never blown up an airliner with a bomb planted in the United States; the Pan Am flight blown out of the air in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland, originated in what was then West Germany.

In St. Louis, where TWA is based, police patrols and surveillance were increased at Lambert Airport following the crash.

To an international television audience, the crash site was a jagged, bright red splotch on the screen. But to rescue workers out in the water, said New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, "the reality of what occurred is settling in. ... They are carrying bodies back to shore."

The deadliest air disaster in American history came in 1979 when an American Airlines DC-10 crashed on takeoff at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, killing 273 people.

The worst air disaster blamed on a bomb was Air India Flight 182, which was blown out of the sky off the Irish coast June 23, 1985, on a flight between England and Canada. The explosion killed all 329 people aboard. The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 killed 270 people, 259 on the plane and 11 on the ground in Scotland.