Still Bearing Witness
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.
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 upit 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.
At the NTSB's August meeting, Mayer gave many reasons why eyewitness recollections should not be taken at face value. Citing psychologists, he said memories are almost never perfectly recalled, but are corrupted by what is called "post-event information," which in this case could range from FBI agents' leading questions to the influence of news reports suggesting a missile was fired. Oddly, though, in some cases investigators decided to trust witnesses implicitly. Wire's recollection of where he was standing and where he was looking, for example, was apparently treated by investigators as utterly trustworthy, precise information.
For Dwight Brumley, who was sitting on the right side of US Air 217, a passenger flight approaching Providence at 21,000 feet at the time of the explosion, there is no doubt that the streak of light coming up from below and slightly behind him was a missile. "I watched it for seven to 10 secondsit pitched over, and a small explosion appeared," he told the audience at the hotel. "Then, after a few seconds, it grew much bigger, then began to elongate as it extended downwards."
Brumley, according to CIA and NTSB investigators, could not have seen TWA 800 explode, because it was out of sight, directly ahead of and below his aircraft, at the timean explanation Brumley roundly rejects. However, the account of another passenger on US Air 217 recently interviewed by the Voice is potentially more problematic for investigators. Sitting toward the rear of the plane, on the same side, 12-year-old Adam Coletti looked down and saw what looked like the wake of a boat. He saw the shape of a boat, he said. He turned to tell his mother across the aisle, he told the Voice; then when he looked back there was a redness where the boat had been. "It looked like it was red and kind of blinking, red, intense," the boy said. "I'm not sure if it exploded then, or if I turned again and looked back, but it was 10 to 15 seconds after I saw the red that I saw the explosion." The explosion, he said, had seemed to be stretching up from the boat. It "went up from the boatjust really quick," he said. Coletti's unique account does not, apparently, fit any of the TWA 800 investigation's suggested explanations for eyewitness evidence of the crash.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.