Flight 800's Last Stage

The Four-Year Investigation Ends, the Mystery Endures

With a public meeting set for later this month, the endgame of the long, very costly investigation into the crash of TWA Flight 800 may be at hand. On August 22 and 23, victims' family members, their lawyers, and others will gather at National Transportation Safety Board headquarters in Washington, D.C., for what the NTSB calls a "Sunshine Meeting." They will listen to a formal presentation by NTSB staffers of their final report on the crash of TWA Flight 800, which exploded without warning as it climbed smoothly out of JFK on its way to Paris, at 8:31 p.m. on July 17, 1996.

If the five-member board decides to accept the TWA 800 report's conclusions, they will vote on a probable cause for the crash. Going by its public statements over the past three and a half years, the NTSB seems likely to endorse a finding that the aircraft was destroyed because an electrical flaw put a spark into the center fuel tank, causing an explosion.

It has been four years since the fiery crash eight miles south of Long Island that killed 230 people—the second-worst airline disaster in U.S. history in terms of fatalities—and set off a probe that a recent Learning Channel documentary called "one of the most controversial investigations of all time." As reports of the crash filled the late evening broadcasts of CNN and the networks, eyewitnesses were already coming forward to report that a mysterious, flarelike object had streaked across the sky. These eyewitness reports, which would number in the hundreds, gave rise to the theory that a missile had hit the plane.

Soon, full-blown conspiracy theories emerged, alleging that the federal investigation, shared by the FBI and NTSB, was covering up either the first successful terrorist shoot-down of an American airliner or else—an even more harrowing possibility—that a U.S. Navy ship shot down the plane in a ghastly military mistake.

But within months the NTSB announced that it had found the cause of the crash: an explosion in the 25-year-old Boeing 747's almost empty center fuel tank. A year later the FBI suspended its criminal investigation, having found no evidence of a bomb or missile.

At its five-day hearing on the crash, held in Baltimore in December 1997, NTSB chairman Jim Hall pledged that the Safety Board would continue to search for evidence of what had ignited the center tank explosion, while working to ensure that all ignition sources would henceforth be banned from aircraft fuel tanks and that the exposure of tanks to flammable vapors would be reduced to a minimum.

In an unusual show of cooperation with the Safety Board, the FAA last year proposed new rules to enhance fuel system safety, and the Clinton administration took up the cause in May when it said that it would establish a research group to examine wire safety issues. "Aging wiring is an issue of national concern," said a White House memo reported by USA Today. The article mentioned recent wiring malfunctions in the space shuttle fleet and suggested that similar problems were being considered as possible causes for the Swissair 111 and TWA 800 crashes.

Yet troubling questions remain. It is worth noting that the NTSB has never found evidence that conclusively shows that a tank explosion caused the TWA 800 crash. Former CNN reporter Christine Negroni, in her book Deadly Departure, details a scenario involving a possible short circuit in wiring outside the center tank, a theory that has come to be favored by investigators. However, the NTSB has yet to demonstrate that any breakdown in Flight 800's systems could have caused an explosion.

Now, in interviews with the Voice, two experts in aviation fuel express doubts about the essential question of whether the atmosphere inside TWA 800's center tank that evening was likely to have been truly explosive (see below).

Critics of the investigation, of course, have always been skeptical of the center-tank explosion theory, mainly because of the eyewitness evidence that is now at last in the public domain. At the NTSB's August hearing, said spokesman Paul Schlamm, the board will incorporate that evidence into its findings.

Eyewitness accounts have long been an important tool for crash investigators; there have been air disasters, for example, in which it was only from eyewitness accounts that investigators could be reasonably sure that lightning had struck an aircraft. According to a 1985 Air Force manual for aircraft accident investigators by Joseph M. Kuchta and Robert G. Clodfelter, "Of particular interest is what the witness saw, heard and experienced before and after the accident."

But experts involved in the TWA 800 investigation have stumbled over that very question, disagreeing about whether the streaks of light reported by many witnesses happened before TWA 800 first exploded, in which case they could be a clue to the cause of the crash, or after TWA 800 exploded, in which case they would not be relevant in the search for the cause. Somewhat alarmingly, it turns out that the CIA, which analyzed 244 summaries of witness interviews, or FD 302s, for the FBI and produced a video entitled "What Did the Eyewitnesses See?" has not offered an explanation for the accounts of flares rising from the horizon, except to say that the eyewitnesses must have been mistaken.

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