By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
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By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
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The explosion, Meyer said, was "a high-velocity explosion. It looked for all the world to me like ordnance, a warhead." It was followed, he said, seconds later by a second high-velocity explosion, which produced a burst of brilliant white light "like nothing I've seen before or since," and then after a few more seconds, "a petrochemical explosion, which was the fuel burning--bright orange, mottled color, and a lot of black." Meyer told the Voice he believes two missiles hit the plane.
Rear Admiral Clarence A. Hill, who during a 40-year navy career served on submarines, was a navy pilot, and commanded a carrier, listened to Meyer at the January press conference. Noting that no eyewitnesses were invited to testify at the NTSB hearings on the crash, held in Baltimore last December, Hill told the Voice he found it extraordinary that a veteran who presumably had seen plenty of ordnance explosions during his service in Vietnam was not invited to testify at the NTSB hearings into the crash. (The FBI requested that the NTSB not discuss eyewitness testimony at the hearings because it could conceivably be needed as evidence if Flight 800 became a criminal case.)
"For him to be discounted, there's something wrong there," said Hill.Citing lessons learned while investigating many air crashes during his navy career, Hill said, "One of the things you never, never did was discount any kind of information."
The FBI denies that any eyewitnesses were discounted. "We don't question their reports; nobody made up stories," said assistant director of the FBI James Kallstrom at a November press conference. It was there that a CIA-produced videotape was screened, asserting that eyewitnesses who believed they saw a missile were actually watching Flight 800 after it exploded--the CIA video's scenario had the aircraft climbing some 3000 feet after its nose fell off. The theory that the plane climbed after the initial explosion is not supported by Boeing, the plane's manufacturer, which has said it is unaware of what data the CIA drew upon to develop the scenario, nor even by the NTSB, which stated at Baltimore that there is no data to show the plane's altitude after the explosion. (Boeing, it should be added, does not endorse any particular crash scenario.)
To Meyer, the CIA video is a joke. "It bears no relation to anything I saw," he told the Voice. In addition, the Voice has interviewed three other eyewitnesses, none of whose accounts appear to fit the CIA's version. All three described an ascending streak, and two agreed with Meyer that there had been a bright white flash, which according to some experts can indicate a very high-energy event.
These witnesses, and presumably others, are looking to the reconvening of the NTSB Witness Group as an opportunity to be heard. (In the early days following the crash, the Witness Group activities were aborted at the insistence of the FBI.) But according to a participant in the NTSB investigation, there is little chance that the group will examine graphic accounts such as Fred Meyer's. "They're interested in interviews that address the aircraft breakup. In other words, they're discounting phenomena in the sky," this source said. NTSB managing director Peter Goelz himself poured cold water on the idea that new analysis of the eyewitness accounts may emerge from the Witness Group's deliberations.
Meyer's theory that the airplane was hit by two missiles is shared by Commander Donaldson, whose private investigation was the driving force behind the January press conference. A retired navy attack pilot and crash investigator, Donaldson has been a thorn in the side of the NTSB for months, firing off letters accusing the NTSB of using sloppy science to justify its findings. While the NTSB is dismissive of his theories, others are listening. "He's good 80 per cent of the way," a TWA official told the Voice.
The centerpiece of Donaldson's two-missile theory is a now much disputed line of data in the NTSB's Flight Data Recorder (FDR) Group chairman's factual report, which was released to the public at Baltimore. The FDR, one of the plane's two black boxes, recorded a continuous stream of data during the 12.5 minutelong flight.
According to the report's summary, the data reveals nothing amiss with Flight 800: the aircraft was climbing normally, writes FDR Group chairman Dennis Grossi, at the moment when the recording was interrupted, at 20:31:12, or 8:31 and 12 seconds. But on the last page of actual data taken from the FDR's magnetic tape, the readout appearing at 20:31:12 appears to indicate a flight thrown into chaos, with values that fluctuate wildly from those recorded just a second earlier. The plane apparently plummets more than 3000 feet to 10,127 feet, and brakes from 298 knots to 100 knots--a speed at which a 747 would be sure to stall and fall from the sky, said TWA spokesman Mark Abels.
But the NTSB decided that this lurching data stream was simply irrelevant. Indeed, Grossi has drawn a line through the last row of numbers and written the words "End of FLT. 800 Data" beside it.
Not so fast, said Donaldson. After retired TWA pilot Howard Mann, a confrere of Donaldson's, showed him the last row of data, Donaldson had an epiphany. The only logical explanation for the data, Donaldson said at the January press conference, is that a missile warhead exploded outside the plane, producing a massive high-pressure wave. This shock wave barrelled into the plane, Donaldson believes, confusing some of the instruments that feed data to the FDR--in particular the ones for airspeed and altitude, which are located on the outside of the fuselage--so that they gave false readings.