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A Search for Answers

As this is written, federal authorities still haven't revealed what caused the explosion that destroyed TWA Flight 800. While many strongly suspect a terrorist bomb, nothing can be ruled out until more evidence is found, including some unknown type of mechanical failure.

The country and the victims' families owe a debt of gratitude to the dedicated police, firefighters, Coast Guardsmen, Navy sailors, FBI agents, and National Transportation Safety Board investigators who have labored mightily in responding to the crash, both in search-and-rescue and the investigation and recovery efforts. The Long Islanders who rushed to the crash scene in their private boats to rescue any survivors also deserve thanks.

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President Clinton set the right tone from the beginning by emphasizing time and again - including Thursday, when he announced a series of new rules for air-travel security - that no one should jump to conclusions about the tragedy's cause. His meeting with the families showed compassion and let them know the country cares.

As the families' grief began to take expression in anger, some criticized New York Gov. George Pataki and other politicians for misleading them about discoveries in the investigation. As time passes, we think the governor and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani will be judged to have performed admirably. At times they have been powerful advocates for the families' interests. It is difficult to blame them for incomplete and contradictory information they have received: If they pass it on and it is wrong, they stand accused of grandstanding; at the same time, the families and the media are understandably clamoring for all the information they can get.

The families deserve our utmost compassion. While they are frustrated that recovery efforts took so long, it is well to remember the difficult conditions and technical challenges investigators are working under. That they have recovered as much as they have this quickly is in itself a wonder of modern technology. It was not that long ago that ships such as the Andrea Dorea sank and nothing was recovered. The public's expectations about what is possible in such circumstances are probably higher than warranted.

The news media's performance in covering the tragedy is mixed. Less than two hours after the plane went down, an expert was on CNN announcing that there must have been a bomb. Grieving families have been badgered by reporters, one of whom even posed for a while as a family member. While there have been many misleading reports, most organizations have tried to act with restraint.

If evidence shows that a mechanical failure caused the explosion, aviation-safety officials will need to immediately implement remedial measures. If a criminal or terrorist bomb was to blame, the president must ensure that the FBI, CIA, and other federal agencies leave no stone unturned in tracking down the culprits. We do not doubt that they will succeed.

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