Scattered Clues

New shadows darken the TWA Flight 800 probe

The elusive ignition source for the extremely rare center tank explosion that the National Transportation Safety Board believes destroyed TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996, remains a troubling and controversial mystery. Although the investigation is continuing, the NTSB admits that it may never be able to explain what led up to the horrifying last moments of the Paris-bound, 25-year-old 747 and her 230 passengers and crew.

But, in truth, the crash left a host of anomalies in its wake. The Voicehas recently uncovered many unexplained elements in the investigation, among them: a piece of wing debris bearing clues that excited one investigator, a veteran pilot; a loud sound on the cockpit voice recorder and erratic readings on the flight data recorder, both suggesting a high explosive blast; hundreds of eyewitness accounts, finally being examined by the NTSB, of which more than a hundred suggest that a missile brought down the plane; and, lastly, a recommended test that investigators failed to carry out.

The wing debris seemingly shatters the NTSB's theory. "You ever shot a .22 through a tin can? You know how the holes look where it punctures the metal and it rolls the metal back and tears it as it stretches?" the veteran pilot asked. "Well that's what these holes looked like, except they were oval-shaped." He was recalling three holes— each at least six inches long by around three inches high, he said— which had been punched through the thin aluminum panelling of a structural piece from inside the right wing of the 747. The holes were punched out "from the airplane toward the wing tip," he added. The piece, called a rib, came from within the wing's leading edge about five feet out from the fuselage, he said, where the landing lights would be.

The pilot, an accredited accident investigator, found the piece four days after the crash while touring the Calverton hangar where the recovered debris was taken. He spotted Dr. Merritt Birky, a top NTSB scientist who led the agency's effort to document damage caused by fire or explosion, and carried the five-foot-by-six-inch rib over to him. "I said, 'Look, I think that these holes were caused by a high explosion,' " the pilot recalls.

According to the pilot, Birky said it had already been determined that the holes in the rib were made by impact with the water. Dissatisfied, the pilot took the piece over to the FBI field lab at Calverton, where technicians gave him a demonstration of their explosive-sniffing machine. The piece promptly tested positive for nitrates, a possible sign of explosive residue. Before the rib was taken off next day for further tests at the FBI's Washington lab, another crash investigator had a chance to examine the holes. "They were not caused by water," he told the Voice. (The NTSB did not respond to Voice queries about the rib. Birky didn't respond to repeated Voice requests for comment.)

"I do remember a piece in that general vicinity [of the right wing] was of great interest but on further examination by the [FBI] metallurgists it proved to be nothing," retired assistant director of the FBI, James Kallstrom, recently told the Voicefrom his office at the Delaware bank where he's now employed. The piece tested negative for nitrates in Washington, Kallstrom said.

Kallstrom said he couldn't recall details of the investigation. For instance, a December 1997 report recommended that investigators should fill the inboard wing fuel tanks of a 747 with water and fire shoulder-launched missiles at them. Only then could a missile be ruled out as the cause of the crash. (A spokesman for the NTSB told the Voice the agency does not consider the test necessary.)

Noting that the "severe shattering of the left wing upper skin" had puzzled investigators, military expert Richard Bott speculated in the report, obtained by the Voice, that a missile striking the inboard left wing fuel tank would create "a significant hydrodynamic ram event" that would account for the wing's peculiar fragmentation. Some wing pieces were recovered near JFK, suggesting that they fell from the aircraft in the first moments after the plane exploded. "You know," Kallstrom said, "there are some things you can't explain."

Yet while dismissing this evidence Kallstrom seemed at the same time less emphatic in his rejection of the missile theory than he had during previous Voiceinterviews. "Clearly there's a mountain of evidence that says it wasn't [a missile], and maybe there's a little pile over here that says it was," he said. Previously he had insisted that there is "not a scintilla" of evidence a missile was involved.

Whether they amount to "not a scintilla" or part of that "little pile," the eyewitness accounts remain for many the most vexing element of the TWA 800 story. Kallstrom over a year ago unveiled the CIA video that explained that the more than 100 witnesses who told of a streak of light ending in an explosion, fireball, or flash had seen not a missile but the burning plane, which the CIA thinks climbed steeply after it exploded. But now when Kallstrom was asked about the eyewitnesses, he said, "Let me say this— to this day I still believe that the eyewitnesses were reporting what they saw." Confoundingly, this appears to endorse accounts challenged by both the CIA and the FBI.

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