Ships Ahoy!


It’s one of the enduring mysteries of Flight 800: Just how much unexplained activity was there out on the ocean, before and after the moment on Wednesday evening, July 17, 1996, when TWA 800 exploded?

The Voice reported (March 3) the story of Dean Seward, a young airline pilot, ex–U.S. Navy, who spent that afternoon sunbathing with his girlfriend at Gilgo State Park. Around midafternoon he saw a naval warship about three miles offshore. Seward thought nothing of it at the time, but when Pierre Salinger came out with his allegation that TWA 800 had been shot down by a U.S. Navy missile, Seward wondered if the ship he saw might have played a role in the mystery.

He faxed an account of what he had seen to the Air Line Pilots’ Association, which is one of the parties to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into Flight 800, and ALPA sent the fax to the FBI. The NTSB and FBI refused comment on Seward’s sighting, and the navy, although it has admitted that three of its submarines were within 150 miles from the crash site, reiterated that none of its warships was in the vicinity.

However, evidence that seems to support Seward’s story lies in the NTSB’s own ”Airplane Performance Group Factual Report.” On page 5 are listed four unidentified radar tracks, ”consistent with the speed of a boat,” which were recorded on FAA radar at the moment TWA 800 exploded. The closest of these to the crash site is stated to be ”less than 3 nautical miles south-southeast moving south-southwest at just over 30 knots groundspeed.” On a graph on page 43 of the report, the 30-knot track, clearly shown, continues to move away from the crash site over a period of 20 minutes, from 8:30 to 8:50 p.m.

Military experts and deep-sea fishermen we spoke to agreed that it’s rare for a vessel to travel at 30 knots. Naval destroyers and cruisers capable of 30 knots or more rarely travel at that speed because it is so expensive. Commercial shipping goes much slower as a rule. Thirty knots may be in the range of some small speedboats and private yachts, but then consider that this was quite a way out in the Atlantic. According to one deep-sea fisherman who regularly fishes the area where Flight 800 came down, ”There are no high-speed powerboats running 10 miles offshore–they just don’t go out there.”

Neither the navy nor the Coast Guard has made any comment on the 30-knot track, or any of the other unidentified tracks, which were moving more slowly, all within six nautical miles of the crash site. Peter Goelz, managing director of the NTSB, says, ”It was the FBI’s responsibility to identify those vessels. To my understanding, they have not identified who owned the [30-knot track] vessel. We assume it was a pleasure craft of some size.” The FBI’s James Kallstrom said last November that the FBI made an exhaustive investigation of 371 vessels in the waters off Long Island that day. FBI spokesman Joe Valiquette had no comment on the unidentified tracks.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 21, 1998

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