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.''

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.

This residue was on two pieces of seat fabric that Stacey took from the hangar. Sanders had it analyzed at a laboratory. He now says he regrets not asking the lab simply to test for explosives, instead of giving him a breakdown of all the metals and chemical compounds in the residue. But a breakdown is what he got, and he says that missile manufacturers like Thiokol acknowledge that the chemical brew is found in missiles and the fuel that drives them. The FBI insists the residue is nothing but glue, used to refurbish the seats in that particular section of the plane.

Whatever the residue is, it has gotten Sanders, Stacey, and Sanders's wife, Liz, into serious legal trouble. After Sanders's missile theory was published in The Press-Enterprise newspaper in Riverside, California, and a month later in The Downing of TWA Flight 800, the FBI subpoenaed Sanders's phone records.

In doing so, Sanders says, they ignored his rights as a journalist. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Campbell insisted that the conditions were met for a subpoena to be issued for the phone records of a member of the media. Sanders says the FBI moved so quickly that he had no chance to challenge the subpoena, signed by Attorney General Janet Reno.

After the FBI found Stacey's name in the phone records, they questioned him and he agreed to cooperate in return for a reduced charge of misdemeanor theft. This was in June 1997. Strangely, the FBI permitted Stacey to remain part of the investigation, with access to the Calverton hangar, until they were ready to charge him, which didn't happen until December.

Stacey's guilty plea carries the risk of a one-year jail sentence and a fine of up to $100,000. He is scheduled to be sentenced in June. Sanders and his wife, Liz, an ex--TWA employee whose only role, she says, was to ask Stacey if he would speak to her husband, face up to 10 years in jail if they are convicted of charges of conspiracy to steal and theft of material from an aircraft accident. Their trial has yet to be scheduled.

Meanwhile, Sanders says that, partly as a result of learning about the holes in the wing debris, he has changed his mind to some degree about the accident. In his book he theorized that an unarmed missile had hit the plane. Now, he says, ''I no longer think the warhead was inert.''

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