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And there was morethe expert mentioned a videotape shot by a man on Long Island one night during the weeks preceding the crash, which appeared to show a rocket trail rising skyward. "The FBI showed it to us as interesting evidence," the expert says. It looked like the trail of a missile, he adds. FBI assistant director Kallstrom, now retired from the agency, says he doesn't recall any such video.
Later in the investigation, only a month or so before Kallstrom shut down the criminal investigation in late '97 for lack of evidence, Bongardt called the missile expert and invited him to Calverton to view the wreckage. What he saw there hardened his suspicions.
"The left wing root near the center fuel tank was clearly a potential impact point, since much of it was missing or badly damaged," he wrote in an e-mail. In an interview he added that together with the left-side wall of the center fuel tank and the left wing, these areas exhibited "a lot of damage which was not well explained, as far as we were concerned....The metal there looked like something very violent happened."
The NTSB's reports confirm the view that the damage on the left side of the plane was of a different order from the damage on the right side. While the left wing upper skin, for example, was shattered into many small fragments, most of the right wing was recovered in one large chunk that had to be cut up into several pieces before it would fit onto a flatbed truck for the journey from East Moriches to Calverton. In its Sequencing Report the NTSB says that the left wing damage is consistent with "extremely high-strain energy release associated with water impact," but does not suggest why the right wing should have escaped similar damage.
The missile expert interviewed by the Voice says that part of the problem was a lack of time to thoroughly examine the debris for clues. In fact, he says his group proposed that the FBI extend its investigation to evaluate the left-side damage. "The recommendation was verbal and in a letter that we sent the FBI looking to do some additional work on the case with funding from the FBI," he says. "They never replied." Bongardt asked him for a formal report, he says, but before he could write it, Kallstrom ended the criminal probe.
Kallstrom told the Voice he doesn't recall any military experts recommending an extension of the investigation. Kallstrom insists, "It was unanimous among all the experts" that nothing was seen in the damaged metal to warrant further scrutiny.
Kallstrom's "unanimous" claim is open to dispute. Richard Bott, of the China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center, testified at a Baltimore hearing during the investigation that he had seen no evidence of a missile on any of the debris. But just a few days earlier he had signed off on a report, called "TWA Flight 800 Missile Impact Analysis," in which he drew attention to what he called "unexplained damage characteristics" that "puzzled" investigators. He recommended further tests before conclusively ruling out a missile as the cause of this damage to the left wing upper skin, the left wing front spar, and the left side of the center fuel tank. Bott did not return repeated phone messages left by the Voice.
The missile expert the Voice interviewed says of the Bott report, "Much of what he states was brought up in discussions of our people." The expert insists that those discussions took place over a year before he first heard of Bott and read his report.
Kallstrom is apparently indifferent to Bott's concerns. He says, "I wouldn't put much credence in thatI've got a huge pile of expert opinion to the contrary."
The missile expert the Voice interviewed still insists that a forensic team should "take a real hard look" at the left side, and rule in or rule out a missile. But he also admits that the region of damage that would bear clues of the explosion of a shoulder-launched missilewhich has a small warheadwould be quite small, and could easily be among the large areas of the left wing front spar and left side of the center fuel tank that are among the 5 percent of the plane that was never recovered.
Voice interviews with a number of metallurgists and experts in explosives confirmed that unless investigators are able to identify the areaperhaps only a few inches acrosswhere the explosion first impinged on the metal, it's impossible to tell what caused the structure to fail. One author of a book on explosives who has worked on government projects told the Voice, "You're looking at something bent and fractured, but to tie it to a pressure source is very difficult."
Several metallurgists suggested that explosive residue on the debris would point unambiguously to a high explosion. In August '96, traces of PETN and RDX, both ingredients of the plastic explosive also found in some missile warheads, were indeed detected in recovered debris from Flight 800's passenger cabin.
It seemed as if at last evidence had been found proving that a terrorist bomb or a missile had downed the aircraft. But shortly afterward it was claimed that a month before the crash the same 747 was used for a bomb-sniffing-dog exercise. Some of the explosives used, according to this account from the FBI, were apparently in poor condition and could easily have spilled.