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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Explosive Chemical Found in Jet Wreck

WASHINGTON -- A trace of a chemical associated with plastic explosives has been found in the wreckage of TWA Flight 800, law enforcement sources confirmed Thursday.


But the discovery was "not enough to say there had been an explosive device" aboard the plane, which blew apart and plunged into the Atlantic off Long Island on July 17, killing all 230 people aboard.


Results of FBI tests finding traces of pentaerythritol tetranitratethat, or PETN, used in bombs and in missiles, from wreckage retrieved from a seat in the section of the cabin from rows 17 to 27, was first reported by The New York Times in Friday's editions. But the newspaper said officials still unprepared to declare the demise of Flight 800 a criminal act.


Commenting on the report, one law enforcement official said, "It's not the smoking gun. It's a puzzlement."


If more evidence of it is found, however, the explosive device theory "may be right in a few weeks," another source said.


At a meeting Thursday in Washington that included Attorney General Janet Reno, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, FBI Director Louis Freeh, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall and James Kallstrom, head of the FBI's investigation, the new chemical evidence was discussed, but participants were told conclusions still fall short of a bomb declaration, according to one official.


The existence of PETN in the cabin "could be explained by a coincidence," another source added.


One official explained that a trace amount of PETN could have been inadvertently brought on the plane by a passenger, perhaps a soldier, who worked with explosives.


The Times said the chemical is used in explosion welding, powder metallurgy, demolition, rock blasting and "even for creating sculptures."


The FBI has said that when there is sufficient evidence to declare the explosion a criminal act, it will take over the investigation from the safety board and pursue the culprit.


Meanwhile, the fuel system recovered from Flight 800 will be examined and tested by NASA in an effort to determine what might have caused an explosion in the doomed aircraft's center fuel tank area, safety board investigators said. The area, under passenger rows 17 to 28, showed signs of heavy blast damage and burns.


The Boeing 747's fuel pumps, fuel probes and the cockpit fuel management system will be inspected at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, by the same team that investigated the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986.


Robert Francis, vice chairman of the safety board, gave only vague indications of what the NASA team would be doing, but said it will be getting several pieces of wreckage, including the fuel pumps from the center tank, which have a history of electrical shorts but have never been known to cause an explosion.


As of Thursday, according to Francis, 209 bodies had been found. Seating charts indicate the missing 21 bodies were distributed roughly evenly throughout the plane.