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Fuel Tank Is Suspect in TWA Explosion

By Don Phillips
Washington Post Service

SMITHTOWN, New York-Safety investigators are exploring whether the nearly empty center fuel tank on Trans World Airlines Flight 800 might have exploded in flight, although so far they have developed no such evidence.

While the FBI's criminal investigation continues to look for evidence of a possible bomb for missile, National Transportation Safety Board investigators have never stopped asking what mechanical problems might have caused the Boeing 747 to abruptly break up in flight and kill 230 people.

Within that context, the center fuel tank has emerged as a top possibility in some unknown chain of events that could have provided enough energy to tear the plane apart.

Navy search vessels have yet to locate one of the plane's four engines, leaving a catastrophic engine failure as a possible link in such a chain of events. Sources close to the inquiry said the two complete engines that have been located appear to be the outboard engines on each wing. Part of another engine has been found. The missing engine was directly abeam of the center fuel tank. If it exploded, debris could have flown into the center tank and possibly sparked an explosion of the vapors in the tank.

The center fuel tank, which can hold up to 12,890 gallons, was left nearly empty the night of the crash because Flight 800 was lightly loaded. Only about 50 gallons would have been left in the tank, roughly the amount that is left after a tank is pumped "dry."

There is no evidence so far of any problems with either the fuel tanks or the engines, the sources said. On-board recorders show the engines operated normally to the end, and the tapes contain no evidence of fire alarms or other problems other than a split-second loud sound as the recordings end.

Coincidentally, the Federal Aviation Administration announced on Wednesday a proposed rule to require inspection of Boeing 747 engine fuel motors that have, in at least one case, caused fuel to leak into a parked plane's wheel well and start a small fire. The motors have caused no problems inside tanks, however, and the order may have little relevance to the Flight 800 crash.

The proposed order apparently will require inspection of motors that are used to pump fuel into engines and to dump fuel in an emergency. Boeing advised customers to inspect the motors on Aug. 3, 1995, and has issued several other bulletins since then.

Coroner's Report on Victims

The coroner in charge of autopsies on the victims said that most had lost consciousness instantly when the jetliner exploded, and that he doubted any were aware of falling into the sea based on the two types of injuries displayed-those consistent with an explosion and those caused by a huge change in speed, cabin pressure and altitude, The Associated Press reported from East Moriches, New York.

Some passengers may have retained consciousness for one or two seconds after the blast, said Dr. Charles Wetli, the Suffolk County medical examiner.

"The majority lost consciousness instantly," he said.

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