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USS Grapple Arrives as Investigators Search for Clues

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EAST MORICHES, N.Y. (AP) — July 31, 1996 - 5:11 a.m. EDTBy PAT MILTON,Associated Press Writer

The USS Grapple, one of the Navy's top two search-and-salvage vessels, was to begin searching the waters off Long Island today, said James Kallstrom, head of the FBI investigation.

Investigators hoped the ship can find wreckage to confirm their theory: A bomb in the front cargo hold blew the Boeing 747's nose off July 17, killing all 230 people aboard.

The New York Times reported today that some investigators said the plane's front landing gear, which was found over the weekend, showed damage from a powerful blast inside the aircraft - indicating the jet may have been brought down by a bomb.

An unidentified federal investigator told the newspaper that the hydraulic mechanism that retracts the landing gear was found to have ``serious concussive damage,'' and that, ``by the way it had been smashed, bomb experts thought it had been very close to the source of the explosion.''

But senior law enforcement officials also told the Times that the finding did not prove the explosion was the result of a criminal act.

Two sources who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity also cast doubt on the Times report.

It is ``unlikely'' the landing gear provided proof of a bombing, said a source from the National Transportation Safety Board. And another source close to the investigation said those who had studied the piece of wreckage did not believe it brought them closer to a conclusion.

Divers working on the 100-foot-deep floor of the continental shelf recovered 10 more bodies Tuesday, for a total of 171. They also brought up more wreckage and spotted components of a third engine.

For a week, Kallstrom said each day that investigators had ``moved the ball up the field'' toward learning what made the jumbo jet explode. But he dropped his football analogy on Tuesday.

``Even on the (investigating) team, some people think one thing, some think another,'' Kallstrom said. ``There's a lot of different opinions.''

The Grapple arrived Tuesday in an area that produced the front landing gear and some first-class seats. An investigative source has told the AP that searchers suspect a bomb in the forward cargo section blew the plane's nose off, and that wreckage in this debris area might yield a crucial clue.

If such evidence is located, and involves a large piece of wreckage, the Grapple can raise loads of up to 13,000 pounds and keep divers in the water at the same time.

The Grapple is the sister ship of the USS Grasp, which the Navy brought in earlier to help with the search.

Copyright ©1996 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or distributed.

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