In January, more than 25 reporters attended a Washington, D.C., press conference, virtually a military briefing, that for all the actual media coverage it received might as well have been labeled top secret. At the widely ignored event, retired navy pilot Commander William S. Donaldson and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas H. Moorer announced that evidence existed to suggest that a surface-to-air missile brought down TWA Flight 800. They were joined by eyewitnesses who said they saw a streak of light rise into the sky over the Atlantic eight miles off Long Island before ending in an explosion that destroyed the Boeing 747, killing all 230 people aboard. It happened two years ago this week, July 17th.
The missile scenario presented at the conference, reported only in USA Today and a few other Gannett outlets, will not go away, even if major media continue to ignore it. Indeed, ongoing research and recent interviews by The Village Voice lend credence to the critics of the FBI and National Transportation Safety Board investigators who have yet to plausibly explain the crash. While the cause of the crash remains unknown, inadequacies in the official investigation are apparent. For instance:
With the second anniversary of the crash upon us, the families of the 230 victims and the flying public are still waiting for the investigation to answer the question: What ignited the explosion in the airplane’s center fuel tank? The NTSB believes the fuel-tank explosion is the sole cause of the catastrophe. The FBI and NTSB–with help from the U.S. Navy and other federal agencies including the CIA–have spent more than $40 million trying to explain the crash.
The lack of answers should focus attention on the independent investigators who appeared at the January press conference and some of the assertions they made there. How can the suggestions and opinions of these highly credentialed military men be ignored by the media and the government?
Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, U.S. Navy (retired), a navy pilot who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the Vietnam War, was the heaviest hitter among those present at the press conference, which was sponsored by Accuracy in Media. (The sponsorship by this right-wing group, a rabid critic of mainstream media, perhaps explains why the press ignored the conference.)Moorer called for a congressional investigation into the Flight 800 crash.
Admiral Moorer has most recently been at the center of the Operation Tailwind news scandal, in which CNN and Time magazine falsely claimed that U.S. forces sprayed lethal gas in Laos during the Vietnam War. The CNN programNewsStand and a Time article cited Moorer as a confirming source–which he immediately disputed after the show aired. CNN retained attorney Floyd Abrams to review the program’s reporting.
In the ensuing report, Abrams scrutinizes more than seven hours of interviews CNN conducted with Moorer. The admiral, who is 86 and lives in an assisted-care retirement home, is no longer called as a source by the CNN Pentagon correspondent, though Abrams found that Moorer’s “memory remains satisfactory.” The attorney concludes that Moorer’s responses were severely distorted by CNN reporters and editors. “Viewed as a whole,” Abrams wrote, “Admiral Moorer simply does not come close to offering the sort of support for the conclusions offered by CNN that the program asserts that he does.”
The Voice last week asked Moorer to confirm that he still stood by the criticisms he made in January about the Flight 800 investigation. He does, and when asked why he believes a missile might be responsible for the disaster, he told the Voice, “Because there were an extremely large number of observers who reported that they saw the missile in flight and the explosion.”
Two eyewitnesses to the crash, Major Fred Meyer and Richard Goss, gave their accounts at the press conference. Goss, who was sitting on the deck of the Westhampton Beach Yacht Squadron on the evening of the crash, reported seeing a flare rise into the sky over Fire Island. Meyer said he saw a streak of light from his seat in an Air National Guard helicopter hovering about 150 feet over the runway at Francis Gabreski Airport, also in Westhampton Beach. Both men said the streak of light ended in an explosion–but Meyer, who flew rescue missions in Vietnam, went further.
The explosion, Meyer said, was “a high-velocity explosion. It looked for all the world to me like ordnance, a warhead.” It was followed, he said, seconds later by a second high-velocity explosion, which produced a burst of brilliant white light “like nothing I’ve seen before or since,” and then after a few more seconds, “a petrochemical explosion, which was the fuel burning–bright orange, mottled color, and a lot of black.” Meyer told the Voice he believes two missiles hit the plane.
Rear Admiral Clarence A. Hill, who during a 40-year navy career served on submarines, was a navy pilot, and commanded a carrier, listened to Meyer at the January press conference. Noting that no eyewitnesses were invited to testify at the NTSB hearings on the crash, held in Baltimore last December, Hill told the Voice he found it extraordinary that a veteran who presumably had seen plenty of ordnance explosions during his service in Vietnam was not invited to testify at the NTSB hearings into the crash. (The FBI requested that the NTSB not discuss eyewitness testimony at the hearings because it could conceivably be needed as evidence if Flight 800 became a criminal case.)
“For him to be discounted, there’s something wrong there,” said Hill.Citing lessons learned while investigating many air crashes during his navy career, Hill said, “One of the things you never, never did was discount any kind of information.”
The FBI denies that any eyewitnesses were discounted. “We don’t question their reports; nobody made up stories,” said assistant director of the FBI James Kallstrom at a November press conference. It was there that a CIA-produced videotape was screened, asserting that eyewitnesses who believed they saw a missile were actually watching Flight 800 after it exploded–the CIA video’s scenario had the aircraft climbing some 3000 feet after its nose fell off. The theory that the plane climbed after the initial explosion is not supported by Boeing, the plane’s manufacturer, which has said it is unaware of what data the CIA drew upon to develop the scenario, nor even by the NTSB, which stated at Baltimore that there is no data to show the plane’s altitude after the explosion. (Boeing, it should be added, does not endorse any particular crash scenario.)
To Meyer, the CIA video is a joke. “It bears no relation to anything I saw,” he told the Voice. In addition, the Voice has interviewed three other eyewitnesses, none of whose accounts appear to fit the CIA’s version. All three described an ascending streak, and two agreed with Meyer that there had been a bright white flash, which according to some experts can indicate a very high-energy event.
These witnesses, and presumably others, are looking to the reconvening of the NTSB Witness Group as an opportunity to be heard. (In the early days following the crash, the Witness Group activities were aborted at the insistence of the FBI.) But according to a participant in the NTSB investigation, there is little chance that the group will examine graphic accounts such as Fred Meyer’s. “They’re interested in interviews that address the aircraft breakup. In other words, they’re discounting phenomena in the sky,” this source said. NTSB managing director Peter Goelz himself poured cold water on the idea that new analysis of the eyewitness accounts may emerge from the Witness Group’s deliberations.
Meyer’s theory that the airplane was hit by two missiles is shared by Commander Donaldson, whose private investigation was the driving force behind the January press conference. A retired navy attack pilot and crash investigator, Donaldson has been a thorn in the side of the NTSB for months, firing off letters accusing the NTSB of using sloppy science to justify its findings. While the NTSB is dismissive of his theories, others are listening. “He’s good 80 per cent of the way,” a TWA official told the Voice.
The centerpiece of Donaldson’s two-missile theory is a now much disputed line of data in the NTSB’s Flight Data Recorder (FDR) Group chairman’s factual report, which was released to the public at Baltimore. The FDR, one of the plane’s two black boxes, recorded a continuous stream of data during the 12.5 minutelong flight.
According to the report’s summary, the data reveals nothing amiss with Flight 800: the aircraft was climbing normally, writes FDR Group chairman Dennis Grossi, at the moment when the recording was interrupted, at 20:31:12, or 8:31 and 12 seconds. But on the last page of actual data taken from the FDR’s magnetic tape, the readout appearing at 20:31:12 appears to indicate a flight thrown into chaos, with values that fluctuate wildly from those recorded just a second earlier. The plane apparently plummets more than 3000 feet to 10,127 feet, and brakes from 298 knots to 100 knots–a speed at which a 747 would be sure to stall and fall from the sky, said TWA spokesman Mark Abels.
But the NTSB decided that this lurching data stream was simply irrelevant. Indeed, Grossi has drawn a line through the last row of numbers and written the words “End of FLT. 800 Data” beside it.
Not so fast, said Donaldson. After retired TWA pilot Howard Mann, a confrere of Donaldson’s, showed him the last row of data, Donaldson had an epiphany. The only logical explanation for the data, Donaldson said at the January press conference, is that a missile warhead exploded outside the plane, producing a massive high-pressure wave. This shock wave barrelled into the plane, Donaldson believes, confusing some of the instruments that feed data to the FDR–in particular the ones for airspeed and altitude, which are located on the outside of the fuselage–so that they gave false readings.
At the time, the NTSB countered that the last row of data was from a previous flight, which in another moment, if Flight 800 had continued, would have been erased from the 25-hour-long continuous loop of tape. But to Mann the readouts are simply impossible. “All I can say is, if that was a previous flight, where did it crash?” Mann told the Voice.
But the fact that the data values in the last row make no sense to pilots is not hard for the NTSB to explain. “Since the erasing of the old data happened to end in the middle of a data set, the data readout was garbled for about one second. Therefore, the data you point out is not only 25 flight hours old, but unsynchronized and, thus, meaningless,” Goelz of the NTSB told the Voice.
Nevertheless, the FDR data continues to raise more questions than it answers. One industry expert, for instance, agreeing with Donaldson that a sudden decrease in the readouts for airspeed and altitude could be caused by a sudden increase in pressure outside the aircraft, called it “a remarkable coincidence” that garbled data could include results which are consistent for two parameters. The change in other values in the last row–pitch, for instance, which increased from 3.6 to 8.3 degrees, and elevator position, which jumped from 0.1 to 11.2 degrees–could also have been the result of an explosion, although in these cases, the expert noted, the blast could as easily have been internal as external.
Another expert also seemed perplexed by the NTSB’s data. When Greg Francois, product manager for data recording equipment for AlliedSignal Air Transport and Regional Avionics, first viewed the FDR report, he told the Voice that there was clearly more data recorded on the FDR’s magnetic tape than is shown in the report. Francois should know what he is talking about: AlliedSignal bought out Sundstrand, which originally developed and manufactured the universal flight data recorder carried on Flight 800. Francois said he was very familiar with the UFDR. Reading through the text of the FDR report written by Dennis Grossi, Francois said that it appeared that during the last half-second of operation the FDR’s tape recorded another set of data, which does not appear in the report.
But in a subsequent interview, as the Voice was going to press, Francois frankly admitted to being puzzled by the report. “I don’t know what [the data] means because it’s his software–it’s how he manipulated the table,” he said, referring to Grossi, who did not return a phone message seeking comment on the FDR data.
Donaldson, in any event, is not giving up his smoking gun without a fight. “Every damn bit of data that comes from that airplane fits with a missile burst,” he told the Voice.
Critics charge that the NTSB continues to shy away from leads that point to the missile scenario. For instance, the NTSB’s Safety Board failed to follow up on tests that it ordered early last year. The reporton those tests, dated May 19, 1997, and yet to be released (albeit obtained by the Voice), indicates that nitrate, a chemical commonly found in explosive compounds, was detected on two pieces from the center fuel tank of TWA Flight 800.
The report says that “splatter-like” samples of material were scraped from a piece of the front spar of the fuel tank, and from an adjacent piece of the tank’s upper skin, and sent to NASA’s Materials and Chemical Analysis Branch at Kennedy Space Center in Florida for tests. The tests were requested by Dr. Merritt Birky, who heads the NTSB’s Fire and Explosions Group.
The lab found minute quantities of nitrate in both samples, which came from pieces designated CW504 and CW114, respectively. CW504, the front spar piece, was the earliest structural piece of the airplane to fall after the initial explosion, and as such has remained a puzzle to NTSB metallurgists trying to explain how the plane broke up. (See the Voice, April 21.)
“An attempt to determine the origin of the anions [nitrate is an anion] present in both samples was not conducted but is of concern and is under further investigation,” writes NASA scientist Charles W. Bassett in a concluding comment on the report.
“Just because you find nitrate, it doesn’t mean an explosive,” Dr. Birky told the Voice. Yet despite agreeing that it was of interest to the NTSB whether the nitrate indicated something innocuous or not, he said, “I don’t think we did any further chemical analysis on that splatter.”
When asked whether nitrate was found on CW504, NTSB managing director Goelz wrote, in a fax sent last April: “Nitrates were not found on the piece CW504.” When the Voice then faxed him the NASA lab report, he replied that he had misunderstood the earlier question: “I understood your question to be directed at whether there was an explosive device found on TWA Flight 800.”
The report is notably absent from an appendix to the NTSB’s Fire and Explosions Group chairman’s report, which contains several similar lab reports, all done at the same NASA lab. It is also presumably the report referred to in the NTSB’s Flight 800 CD-ROM as “CW504 Splatter (not available).”
In addition to notfollowing up on suspicious nitrate readings, crash investigators also apparently deliberately ignored evidence that contradicted the prevailing theoryof how the plane broke up. Alan Brock, a New York State police investigator, was a member of the Cabin Interior Group that worked to reassemble the passenger cabin at the hangar in Calverton. He recalled in a recent interview with the Voice the consternation that greeted the arrival of two seats.
“These particular seats were a headache rightfromthebeginning,”Brock said. In fact, over a year later, when he finished his work in the hangar, “they were still arguing about it.”
The seats–or rather parts of seats, such as armrests bearing row and seat numbers, thereby identified as having come from a particular location in the plane–each had red tags, indicating that they had been recovered from the debris field nearest to JFK, and were thus among the first things to fall from the aircraft.
“The discrepancy was that they should have been located in the green field, the last one, because they were from the back of the plane, the last five to 10 rows,” Brock said. It’s not hard to see why the seats attracted the attention of investigators in the hangar. The NTSB believes that after the plane’s fuselage was severed forward of the wings, the aft section flew on for about two nautical miles and fell intact into the ocean in what was later called the green debris field. If the seats in question had truly been found in the red area, it would suggest that the tail section of the plane was seriously damaged early in the sequence of events, a contingency that presumably would require the NTSB to revise its account of the plane’s breakup.
But the NTSB questioned the accuracy of the red tags, leading to a dispute with some members of the group. “We wouldn’t go along with that because we said this is the way they came in tagged, this is the way we were leaving them,” said Brock. “Hank was not going to let them arbitrarily change it,” he said of Henry Hughes, the group chairman and an NTSB official himself. (The NTSB did not return a call seeking comment from Hughes.) After that, Brock said, another set of tags was added to the seats.Brock said he was told that the recovery documentation for the seats checked out–that their red tags were the correct ones, in other words. But that did not end the dispute.
“I know when I left there–it was probably September  when we last went out there–they were still in discussion about it,” Brock said. “The seats still had a double set of tags.”
Asked about the seats, NTSB managing director Goelz faxed a letter to the Voice in which he gave an account of two seat armrests that came into the hangar with one red tag, numbered A217, became separated from it, but ultimately had their red-tag identity restored.
Whether or not these are the seats mentioned by Brock, Goelz makes an interesting admission, for the seats–from rows 46 and 48, Goelz says–did indeed come from the last five or so rows in the passenger cabin. And a printout of an NTSB debris log obtained by the Voice indicates that the recovery position of these two seat armrests was at least one nautical mile to the west of the green debris field where the aft fuselage fell. Yet Goelz makes no attempt to explain how these two seats could have fallen from the plane so early in the breakup sequence.
Despite this open question, and many others, Goelz says the NTSB is satisfied with its work and does not plan to expend more efforts and funds in the attempt to identify what caused TWA Flight 800 to blow up. With the exception of the Witness Group, the investigation is over, and further studies or analyses will be undertaken only if new evidence comes to light, he told the Voice.