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SMALL BOMB MAY HAVE CAUSED TWA DISASTER, 1 SOURCE SAYS

SHARE SMALL BOMB MAY HAVE CAUSED TWA DISASTER, 1 SOURCE SAYS

TWA Flight 800 may have been destroyed by a bomb that was not especially powerful but large enough to ignite a "chain reaction" that blew the jetliner in half, a source close to the investigation said Saturday.

Most aircraft bombs have detonated at higher altitudes when the plane is fully pressurized. In those cases a simple fuselage rupture led to massive decompression, causing the plane to disintegrate without a large explosion.But Flight 800 exploded in a huge fireball seen as far away as 10 miles.

Although not the usual effect of a bomb, the Boeing 747 was well below cruising altitude and not yet pressurized. Under those conditions, a small bomb that could fit in carry-on luggage would probably not cause an immediate break-up.

Instead, the plane could keep flying until its jet fuel, ignited by a bomb, eventually exploded.

A bomb is one of three theories under consideration in the blast, along with possible mechanical failure or a missile attack.

One problem with the particular bomb theory is that jet fuel, a kerosene-like compound, is prone to burn rather than explode.

Some investigators have theorized that vapors lingering in the empty tank from the plane's previous flight from Athens to New York could have been what ignited.

Sources theorize that if it was a bomb, a piece of carry-on luggage placed beneath a seat and above the plane's center fuel tank could have caused the chain reaction needed to produce such a massive explosion.

The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said the tiny bits of residue from a plastic-type explosive called PETN were found "on the floor" of the passenger cabin.

FBI chief investigator James Kallstrom said the microscopic bits were not enough to conclude the jetliner was destroyed by a criminal act.

More evidence, such as telltale damage to metal, would be needed, he said.

A source also said the FBI was expanding its inquiry to cover passengers, service and maintenance personnel who came in contact with the jetliner on its last Athens-to-New York trip prior to the fateful day.

TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed July 17 while climbing out of Kennedy Airport on a flight to Paris. All 230 aboard were killed.

As the ocean search went on Saturday, salvage ships hauled ashore the jet's main landing gear. An L-shaped strut with one tire remaining was unloaded from a barge for delivery to a nearby hangar, where the plane is being reassembled.

Also recovered was a cone, possibly the jet's nose, and two cargo nets brimming with twisted metal.