Flight 800: The Missing Evidence

When Suspicious Debris Arrived in the Hangar the FBI Took It Away

FBI agents at the Calverton hangar where wreckage from TWA Flight 800 was being examined to determine the cause of the crash removed a piece from the leading edge of one wing, two sources told The Village Voice. These sources said the wing piece bore possible evidence of the explosion of a missile warhead.

Journalist and author James Sanders alleges that two unnamed National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators told him that the FBI would not allow the piece to be tagged and put into the NTSB computer; instead they had it flown to Washington, D.C. However, although the wing piece apparently hasn't been entered into its database, NTSB managing director Peter Goelz denies that the FBI prevented his agency from logging any information. The wing piece, which seems to have vanished, tested positive for explosives in an examination in Calverton, according to Sanders, and had a series of punctures in the apex of the leading edge that could have been made by shrapnel traveling at high velocity.

An Air National Guard helicopter pilot named Fred Meyer said the piece of debris, ''about five feet long,'' was likely the one he ferried from Calverton to his base at Westhampton Beach in July or early August 1996. ''I knew from looking at it that it was the leading edge of some aerofoil--horizontal stabilizer, rudder, or wing--and it had punctures in it. We're talking about a piece of aluminum alloy that is very strong and rigid. In this were dimples with holes in the center of the dimple, like something was driven through with incredible force--I would say four to six holes,'' Meyer told the Voice.

FBI spokesman Joe Valiquette says the agency did indeed remove a wing piece with a series of holes in it and flew it to an FBI lab in Washington. There it was determined, he says, that the holes were not caused by an explosion, nor was any suspicious residue found on the wing. Sanders, however, insists that his sources, both NTSB investigators, told him residue was discovered on the wing piece, and it had tested positive for explosives. Although The New York Times quoted an unnamed source as saying that a preliminary test on the wing piece came back ''borderline positive'' for explosive material, NTSB director Goelz says the Times report was incorrect and denies that there was any positive test for explosives.

Valiquette says the FBI returned the wing with the suspicious holes in it to the NTSB investigation in Calverton, along with a lab report showing the negative results of a test for explosives. However, NTSB director Goelz says he is not aware of any piece from a wing edge with holes in it. ''Do you have a reference number?'' he asked. As the Voice was going to press, more than a week after first requesting specific comment, Goelz said he was still trying to locate the wing piece.

In other words, the wing piece has not been reexamined by the NTSB. This is alarming given the intense criticism that arose last year over the integrity of FBI crime labs. Last fall before a Senate committee, Inspector General Michael Bromwich stated that ''hundreds if not thousands of cases are implicated'' in the mishandling of evidence in FBI labs. The former FBI crime lab unit chief James Corby also testified that explosives unit chief J.Thomas Thurman, who was involved in the TWA Flight 800 investigation, was a particular problem. ''Special agent Thurman did alter reports intentionally,'' Corby said.

Further tests of the wing piece by the NTSB would have been reassuring. But the uncertainty cannot be resolved. The wing piece is missing.

Both the FBI and NTSB, nevertheless, have ruled out a missile as the cause of the crash, a conclusion much disputed by Sanders, Meyer, and other critics of the investigation. Bound for Paris, the 747 exploded without warning at 8:31 p.m., July 17, 1996, about 12 minutes after takeoff from Kennedy airport. The plane was eight miles south of Long Island at about 13,700 feet on a hazy evening, just after sunset. All 230 passengers and crew were killed.

What became the most expensive investigation ever into a civilian air disaster ($28 million and counting) was launched, with the FBI and the NTSB sharing the load. The FBI searched for evidence of a crime, while the NTSB assumed its mandate to investigate major air crashes. Although neither agency has determined the cause of the explosion, last week the NTSB recommended the rewiring of thousands of airliners, mostly 747s, built by Boeing and other companies, which may reduce the risk of sparks that could ignite fuel vapors.

The FBI-NTSB joint investigation was not a comfortable fit. Indeed, tensions between the agencies reportedly arose immediately over the interviewing of eyewitnesses and the handling of evidence. The FBI's most pressing concern at Calverton, Sanders insists, was to be on the lookout for certain kinds of evidence. A retired police officer from Seal Beach, California, Sanders is the author of The Downing of TWA Flight 800 (Zebra Books, 1997), which argues that the 747 was shot down by a U.S. Navy missile during an exercise. ''The FBI was coming in when there appeared to be sensitive pieces coming onto the floor of the hangar,'' Sanders told the Voice, ''but before they'd been tagged and catalogued and put into the NTSB computer they would be removed, never to be seen again.''

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