Still Bearing Witness

Five Years Later, Flight 800 Still Poses Questions

Not many miles from where TWA Flight 800 exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, south of East Moriches, Long Island, and just a few days before the fifth anniversary of the crash, eight eyewitnesses came to the Wyndham Wind Watch Hotel in Hauppauge to share their memories of the tragedy. The official investigation has identified more than 200 people who reported seeing a streak of light before the explosion. These eight witnesses are not satisfied with the formal explanation of what they saw.

First up was Suzanne McConnell of East Moriches, who said that at around 8:30 that evening (July 17, 1996) she was sitting on her back deck overlooking Moriches Bay. "I said to my children, 'There goes a flare.' " She watched a trail of smoke climb up from the horizon over the barrier beach, followed by a burst of flames. " 'That was a really large flare,' I said to my husband. 'Maybe someone's in trouble.' " The next day she told her boss what she had seen. "I said, 'It's odd I saw this thing going up.' He said, 'Call the FBI.' I spoke to an agent, and he said, 'That's what everyone else is telling us.' "

The federal investigation of the crash ended last August. The unanimous vote by the National Transportation Safety Board accepted the conclusion of its technical staff that the plane, carrying 230 people on a trip to Paris, was downed by an explosion of flammable vapors in its almost-empty center fuel tank, probably caused by a short circuit. Dr. David Mayer, chairman of the NTSB's Witness Group, prefaced his remarks about witness reports by saying that whatever they saw, it could not have been a missile because the NTSB knew from the physical evidence that no missile hit the plane.

The unofficial investigators carry on, regardless, certain that despite the multimillion-dollar four-year federal probe, eyewitness evidence has yet to be correctly interpreted, or even seriously considered. Indeed, only one of the witnesses who gave up a glorious Saturday afternoon to come to the windowless hotel meeting room had been interviewed by the NTSB.

McConnell was asked by the panelists if she saw the plane. (The panel was convened by the Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization, founded by Dr. Tom Stalcup, a physicist who works in Bourne, Massachusetts.) McConnell didn't see the plane, she said, but clearly saw two pieces "cascading down." The panel's questions attempted to illustrate that the CIA's account of the plane's flight path after the initial explosion was false. The CIA produced its account after studying FBI witness interviews, and they demonstrated their theory with the aid of a videotaped computer animation showing the burning plane climbing several thousand feet after exploding. This, and not a missile, was what people saw who reported a rising streak of light, the CIA said.

The NTSB, meanwhile, drawing on its understanding of how the plane broke up, argued that no witness could have seen the initial explosion, because, investigators said, it took place inside an intact airplane. But according to the NTSB argument, although the explosion was not visible, moments later, when the nose fell off, flames would have appeared. By that argument, the witnesses who saw a streak or flare culminating in an explosion were not seeing a missile, but TWA 800 climbing after the initial explosion and then being engulfed in a fireball when the fuel in the wing tanks ignited at the top of its climb. So the accounts of many eyewitnesses became the raw material for a theory viewed by many as fantastically unlikely. The very notion that the plane, missing its nose and with all its controls gone and its engines flaming out, could have climbed at all is questioned by pilots and experts in aerodynamics alike.

For Dwight Brumley, who was on another aircraft, there is no doubt that the streak of light was a missile.

Several witnesses at the hotel described the explosion as beginning with a white flash. Roland Penney, standing on Great Gun Dock on Fire Island and facing out over the ocean, watched as "a pencil line of smoke went up—it disappeared for a second and a half, and we thought it was a dud flare. Then there was a big, bright white light," followed seconds later by flames, which "broke in two," he said. And Darell Miron, at a campground at Smith Point Beach, said he saw "a streak of light heading up . . . then a brilliant starburst, all white, then below that, barrels of flame came down slowly."

According to some experts, a white flash can be a sign of the detonation of high explosives.

To Michael Wire, another witness at the hotel, that's not a bit surprising. He said he watched what appeared to be a firework come up from behind a house along the water a few hundred yards from where he was standing on a bridge in Westhampton Beach. The firework left a white smoke plume, he said, then a fireball erupted, and he heard a series of explosions, the first of which shook the bridge. "It was very loud, like a shock wave," he recalled. Both the CIA and the NTSB independently analyzed Wire's account and decided that his line of sight when he saw the "firework" coincided with where TWA 800 was when it first exploded, and so he was probably watching the airplane, not a missile.

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