How Did Flight 800 Blow Up

When Dean Seward and his girlfriend Susan Smith set out for an afternoon at Gilgo State Park a couple of summers ago, they were looking forward to a day at the beach--sunbathing, tossing a Frisbee, strolling in the sand. The midafternoon appearance of a naval warship about three miles offshore, slowly moving westward, didn't seem remarkable at the time to Seward and Smith, both of them airline pilots. The ship was an entertaining diversion that gave the 34-year-old Seward a chance to brag a bit, drawing on his eight years of navy experience, including two tours on carriers as a bombardier-navigator flying in A-6 Intruders. In some detail, Seward described to Smith what kind of ship it was.

That evening, the off-duty pilots (Seward had recently joined TWA; Smith then worked at a Dulles-based commuter airline) were stunned by the news that 34 miles to the east and eight miles out from where, hours earlier, they had been enjoying a sunny afternoon, TWA Flight 800 had plunged into the ocean, leaving the sea full of burning wreckage, aviation fuel, and 230 corpses.

It was only months later, when the navy was defending itself against the outrageous allegation that it had shot down Flight 800 with one of its own missiles, that Seward remembered the vessel. He wondered how the navy could claim that the ship nearest the crash, which took place at 8:31 p.m. on July 17, 1996, was the USS Normandy, then 185 miles away. The ship he had seen could barely have got that far away from Long Island in the time available, even at maximum speed.

Looking back to the day on the beach, Seward recalled they got to Gilgo State Park around 1 p.m. and that it was at least a couple of hours before he saw the ship. In a recent interview with The Village Voice, Seward remembered that Smith had just fetched the Frisbee from the car, a 15-minute walk away, where she'd noticed that the time on the car clock was about 3:10. Shortly thereafter, Seward says, ''I pointed out to her that there was a navy ship out there, and just glancing at it more than anything, and having spent a lot of time looking at navy ships over the years, I thought that it was an Aegis-class cruiser.''

Seward notes that Aegis is actually not a class of ship. Aegis refers to the ultrasophisticated missile-guidance system housed in the bulky forward superstructure on ships such as Ticonderoga-class cruisers. The USS Normandy, currently in the Persian Gulf, is a Ticonderoga-class cruiser. On the beach, Seward surveyed the ship's details with Smith--the rake of the bow and the staggered sets of jet-black exhaust stacks--that are characteristic of these cruisers, and of a destroyer class named Spruance. Both types are armed with similar Standard surface-to-air missiles, but only the Ticonderoga has the Aegis system. But whatever the specific designation of the ship he saw, Seward says, ''I'm 90 per cent sure it was U.S. and 100 per cent sure that it was a warship.''

Others must have seen the ship too. ''The beach was not crowded, but there were certainly plenty of people there,'' Seward says. It is not known whether anyone else on the beach that afternoon made a possible connection between the ship and the TWA disaster, and called the police or FBI.

For his part, Seward contacted his union, the Airline Pilots' Association, to let them know about the ship. (ALPA members were killed on Flight 800, and the union has been designated a party to the investigation.) This was in November, shortly after former White House press secretary Pierre Salinger attracted a chorus of derision when he claimed he had evidence that showed that the navy had shot down Flight 800.

''If the ship I saw at 1545 was the USS Normandy then it would have had to travel at least 150 nautical miles before the approximately 2045 TWA 800 accident,'' Seward wrote in a fax to Captain Jerry Rekart, who heads ALPA's TWA 800 investigation team. ''This would necessitate an average speed of 30 knots, which such a ship is certainly capable of, but which in my experience would be unusual due to the dramatic increase in fuel consumption over a more normal transit speed of perhaps 20 knots.''

The Normandy's log, available from the Navy Historical Center in Washington, D.C., appears to leave no doubt that the ship Seward saw could not have been the Normandy. The log indicates that the USS Normandy left a naval weapons depot west of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, around 9 a.m. on July 17, and by midday was more than 40 miles south of Long Island. It continued toward Virginia and did not exceed 22 knots all afternoon.

Seward says an FBI agent came to see him, but other than that he has received no response to his fax (dated November 18, 1996). He still feels sure that what he saw could be simply explained. ''I told this to the FBI guy: 'Not that you guys owe me an answer, but the navy could clear this whole thing up in 30 seconds as far as I'm concerned, if they said, "Well, the fact of the matter is at 3:30 the USS Dingdong was off Long Island but three hours later it pulled into port and by the time the 747 blew up half the sailors were in Manhattan getting drunk," says Seward.  

In fact, the only thing we do know for sure about the ship Seward saw that day is that its crew did not get a night out on the town in New York. According to the U.S. Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service, no naval ship entered New York Harbor on July 17, 1996. And the navy denies that any of its ships were in the area the evening of the disaster. ''We provided all the pertinent information to the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] and the FBI, and there were no ships in that area,'' said a spokeswoman. An FBI spokesman refused to comment, and the NTSB did not return phone messages seeking comment on the ship.

The unexplained sighting by Dean Seward deepens the Flight 800 mystery and contributes to the notion that the investigation has paid microscopically close attention to some areas of inquiry while completely ignoring others.

This was apparent at the week of hearings on the TWA Flight 800 investigation held by the NTSB in Baltimore last December. Those present heard days of testimony about potential electrical faults, but nothing of the reports from more than 150 eyewitnesses to the tragedy that assert a missile struck the aircraft. In published accounts, some witnesses describe a flarelike object rising from sea level, followed by a strange white flash in the sky, and then the 747 splitting apart and falling in flames. Others talk of a shooting star--like streak in the air, followed by explosions like ''ordnance.''

The FBI, which conducted the witness interviews, requested that they be excluded from the hearings because they may be needed as evidence if, after all, Flight 800 becomes a criminal case. The NTSB complied. But it was hard to see how that reasoning applied to a separate set of interviews with eyewitnesses that the NTSB conducted on its own behalf. Asked in Baltimore why those interviews had not been considered during the hearings, NTSB director of aviation safety Dr. Bernard Loeb gave the extraordinary answer, ''Because we didn't think they were pertinent to the intent of these hearings.'' Asked how he arrived at that decision, he said, ''It's what we do for a living.''

The NTSB's witness interviews still aren't available today, despite the fact that NTSB chairman Jim Hall assured reporters at a posthearings press conference that the Witness Group Chairman Factual Report, as the NTSB calls it, is now part of the public docket of NTSB findings about Flight 800. Repeated requests for a copy of the witness report have been ignored by the NTSB.

The FBI and NTSB both say there is absolutely no evidence that a bomb or missile exploded anywhere near Flight 800, or that an unarmed missile hit it. But despite spending 19 months and more than $27 million, the investigation has failed to plausibly explain how the fuel vapor in the center fuel tank ignited. The eyewitness accounts remain the most potent element in the so-called friendly-fire theory of what happened.

A commonly held view among skeptics is that an attempt to shoot down a drone missile went awry when a navy missile locked onto TWA Flight 800 instead. A report in The Southampton Press last July seemed to lend a wisp of credence to this theory. The news story described a goof by someone at a California defense contractor who dialed a wrong number and sent a fax intended for the FBI to Riverhead resident Dee Muma instead. She turned the fax over to the FBI and gave a copy to The Southampton Press, which reported that the fax carried a diagram of a drone missile manufactured by Teledyne Ryan of San Diego. The fax had been sent by the company's engineers to help the FBI identify some bright orange bits of debris. The company's drones, which are used by the military for target practice during exercises, are painted bright orange. At an FBI press conference held in New York last November to announce the results of its Flight 800 investigation, assistant director James Kallstrom did not mention the Dee Muma affair but said, ''All drones on the East Coast were accounted for. No damage in this airplane was caused by a drone.''  

The best evidence yet that a drone was in the air near Long Island on the evening of the crash may be the photograph taken by Linda Kabot on the deck at Dockers Water Cafe on Dune Road in East Quogue. The personal assistant of Southampton town supervisor Vincent Cannuscio was busy taking photographs of supporters at a fundraiser for her boss. After they were processed, her husband Lance noticed an image on one of them that looked like a missile, flying over the heads of partygoers and apparently heading north over the bay from the barrier beach. Kabot snapped the photos around 8:30, when Flight 800 exploded. Kallstrom said the National Imagery and Mapping Agency confirmed that there is an object in the photo. He said it appeared the object was an aircraft, although the authorities had been unable to identify it.

Kallstrom insisted emphatically, however, "The object is not a drone."

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