Flight 800: The Missing Evidence

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

Sanders's source for this is Terrell Stacey, a veteran TWA captain who on July 16 had flown from Paris to New York the very aircraft that the following day would be designated TWA 800. Stacey was chosen to represent the company in the investigation ''because of his expertise in dealing with the 747,'' said TWA spokesman Mark Abels.

When Sanders first spoke to Stacey, he remembers, Stacey said, ''If you'd called a week ago I'd have blown you off, but things are so bad inside the hangar that, yeah, I'll talk to you.''

Sanders says that Stacey told him he had watched the FBI walk off with a structural piece called a ''pickle fork,'' for example. ''This particular one was on the right side, where the wing meets the fuselage. This pickle fork had exterior strike marks: something outside going into the plane had hit it. The FBI took it,'' says Sanders. The NTSB's Peter Goelz says he was not ready to comment on the pickle fork. The FBI also had no comment.

At secret meetings in hotel rooms, Stacey told Sanders he was not the only one dismayed at the spectacle of disappearing debris. There were times, Sanders says Stacey told him, when senior NTSB management had to deal with a virtual rebellion from workers who felt that the investigation was being derailed by the FBI. By January 1997, Sanders says, ''he was saying that on the NTSB side virtually all the workers on the floor had come to the conclusion it must have been a missile.'' (When this reporter visited Stacey's home in rural New Jersey, he declined to comment, citing the legal troubles that have arisen as a result of his role as a primary source in Sanders's book.)

In addition to his tales from the hangar, Stacey brought a printout of an NTSB log to one of the meetings with Sanders. The printout, a copy of which was obtained by The Village Voice, lists hundreds of pieces of debris, noting where each was found on the ocean floor. During the early days of the recovery effort the order in which pieces blew off the aircraft was apparently considered important. ''Things that fall off first tend to be clues to what happened,'' an unidentified investigator told The New York Times.

With that principle in mind, Sanders notes, ''CW504 is particularly fascinating because it was the first structural piece to fall off.'' This piece is part of the front spar, which is the front wall of the center fuel tank in the belly of the aircraft between the two wings. No fuel or fuel vapor comes into contact with the front spar because it is separated from the rest of the tank by a dry bay.

In his summary of the NTSB's account of how the airplane came apart, a process that for the NTSB began with an explosion of vapor in the center fuel tank, senior metallurgist James Wildey writes, ''In some cases, the Group had to accept that some features either could not be explained by the proposed scenario or might even be in conflict with the proposed scenario. A case in point of an apparent conflict is the recovery location of front spar piece CW504 in the earliest part of the red area [the area nearest to Kennedy airport].''

The problem with CW504 is that although several more bits of the front spar were found in the red zone, most of the center fuel tank was recovered from the green zone, the debris field a couple of miles to the north and east where the aft fuselage section fell. Possibly on account of this, one mid-August 1996 article in The New York Times reported that investigators had concluded that the center fuel tank exploded as much as 24 seconds after the initial blast.

Sanders pointed out that another NTSB report, ''The Trajectory Study,'' grappled with the enigma of CW504 and the piece RF35, which also fell off in the first few seconds after the initial event and landed early in the red zone. RF35 was a piece of the right fuselage above the front of the wing, containing some cabin windows. On NTSB photos of the fuselage reconstruction it is just above a gaping hole, and just in front of the tear in the fuselage where the first-class section and nose sheared away from the rest of the aircraft.

''The Trajectory Study'' states that, using accepted principles to calculate the trajectory of these two pieces, both would have had to leave the aircraft before the last transponder radar return, which is presumed to be impossible. After pages of calculations the report concludes that CW504 must have spun like a Frisbee, and that RF35 probably glided, to reach their respective recovery positions.

But to Sanders, no fancy aeronautical theorizing is needed to explain all this. You just have to suppose that in fact the center fuel tank, if it did explode, had nothing to do with the ejection of these pieces from the aircraft. What did cause them to break away so suddenly was a missile that hit the plane just forward of the wings, leaving the residue on the wing leading edge and the strike marks on the pickle fork, and knocking out RF35 and CW504. Then there was the trail of reddish orange residue on seats in rows 17 to 19.

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