Flight 800’s Last Stage


With a public meeting set for later this month, the endgame of the long, very costly investigation into the crash of TWA Flight 800 may be at hand. On August 22 and 23, victims’ family members, their lawyers, and others will gather at National Transportation Safety Board headquarters in Washington, D.C., for what the NTSB calls a “Sunshine Meeting.” They will listen to a formal presentation by NTSB staffers of their final report on the crash of TWA Flight 800, which exploded without warning as it climbed smoothly out of JFK on its way to Paris, at 8:31 p.m. on July 17, 1996.

If the five-member board decides to accept the TWA 800 report’s conclusions, they will vote on a probable cause for the crash. Going by its public statements over the past three and a half years, the NTSB seems likely to endorse a finding that the aircraft was destroyed because an electrical flaw put a spark into the center fuel tank, causing an explosion.

It has been four years since the fiery crash eight miles south of Long Island that killed 230 people—the second-worst airline disaster in U.S. history in terms of fatalities—and set off a probe that a recent Learning Channel documentary called “one of the most controversial investigations of all time.” As reports of the crash filled the late evening broadcasts of CNN and the networks, eyewitnesses were already coming forward to report that a mysterious, flarelike object had streaked across the sky. These eyewitness reports, which would number in the hundreds, gave rise to the theory that a missile had hit the plane.

Soon, full-blown conspiracy theories emerged, alleging that the federal investigation, shared by the FBI and NTSB, was covering up either the first successful terrorist shoot-down of an American airliner or else—an even more harrowing possibility—that a U.S. Navy ship shot down the plane in a ghastly military mistake.

But within months the NTSB announced that it had found the cause of the crash: an explosion in the 25-year-old Boeing 747’s almost empty center fuel tank. A year later the FBI suspended its criminal investigation, having found no evidence of a bomb or missile.

At its five-day hearing on the crash, held in Baltimore in December 1997, NTSB chairman Jim Hall pledged that the Safety Board would continue to search for evidence of what had ignited the center tank explosion, while working to ensure that all ignition sources would henceforth be banned from aircraft fuel tanks and that the exposure of tanks to flammable vapors would be reduced to a minimum.

In an unusual show of cooperation with the Safety Board, the FAA last year proposed new rules to enhance fuel system safety, and the Clinton administration took up the cause in May when it said that it would establish a research group to examine wire safety issues. “Aging wiring is an issue of national concern,” said a White House memo reported by USA Today. The article mentioned recent wiring malfunctions in the space shuttle fleet and suggested that similar problems were being considered as possible causes for the Swissair 111 and TWA 800 crashes.

Yet troubling questions remain. It is worth noting that the NTSB has never found evidence that conclusively shows that a tank explosion caused the TWA 800 crash. Former CNN reporter Christine Negroni, in her book Deadly Departure, details a scenario involving a possible short circuit in wiring outside the center tank, a theory that has come to be favored by investigators. However, the NTSB has yet to demonstrate that any breakdown in Flight 800’s systems could have caused an explosion.

Now, in interviews with the Voice, two experts in aviation fuel express doubts about the essential question of whether the atmosphere inside TWA 800’s center tank that evening was likely to have been truly explosive (see below).

Critics of the investigation, of course, have always been skeptical of the center-tank explosion theory, mainly because of the eyewitness evidence that is now at last in the public domain. At the NTSB’s August hearing, said spokesman Paul Schlamm, the board will incorporate that evidence into its findings.

Eyewitness accounts have long been an important tool for crash investigators; there have been air disasters, for example, in which it was only from eyewitness accounts that investigators could be reasonably sure that lightning had struck an aircraft. According to a 1985 Air Force manual for aircraft accident investigators by Joseph M. Kuchta and Robert G. Clodfelter, “Of particular interest is what the witness saw, heard and experienced before and after the accident.”

But experts involved in the TWA 800 investigation have stumbled over that very question, disagreeing about whether the streaks of light reported by many witnesses happened before TWA 800 first exploded, in which case they could be a clue to the cause of the crash, or after TWA 800 exploded, in which case they would not be relevant in the search for the cause. Somewhat alarmingly, it turns out that the CIA, which analyzed 244 summaries of witness interviews, or FD 302s, for the FBI and produced a video entitled “What Did the Eyewitnesses See?” has not offered an explanation for the accounts of flares rising from the horizon, except to say that the eyewitnesses must have been mistaken.

An April 1999 meeting with two unnamed CIA analysts who analyzed the 244 interviews gave members of the NTSB’s Witness Group an opportunity to examine the CIA’s thoughts on the subject.

“CIA analyst #1” insists that “the vast majority of the eyewitnesses saw only the last ten to fifteen seconds of what took place.” (A transcript of the meeting is included in the NTSB’s TWA 800 docket.) “It turns out that some of the most valuable reports for our analysis . . . were [from] witnesses who . . . didn’t even think they had seen a flare or firework. They saw the fireball falling to the surface of the ocean,” he says.

An examination of about two-thirds of the 750-odd FBI FD 302s released as appendices to the NTSB’s Witness Group Chairman’s Factual Report reveals that while it is true that many witnesses saw only a fireball and the aftermath, numerous accounts tell of a (usually red or reddish orange) flare, flarelike object, streak of light, firework, Roman candle, what have you, rising in the sky beforehand. (It is unclear what criteria were used to select the 244 FBI interviews analyzed by the CIA, or which 302s they were.)

But the CIA analyst argues that these eyewitnesses were tricked by phenomena of sound and light. They may have thought they saw something before the plane exploded, he explains, but actually they were seeing things that happened after the explosion, when what was left of the plane was trailing burning fuel and either briefly climbing or falling towards the ocean.

“That’s significantly different than what our review of the witness statements leads us to believe,” says Air Line Pilots Association representative James Walters. Referring to witnesses who saw “something they described that was firework-like,” Witness Group chairman and NTSB staffer David Mayer says, “Generally, they described it as rising. Many of them saw it for a very brief period of time, five to 10 seconds.” He asks Walters how many of these witnesses the group identified. “In my notes I have 260,” says Walters. Mayer says that going by the way these witnesses characterized their observations, the streak of light happened at the beginning of the event (i.e., before TWA 800 exploded), not the end.

Ample evidence supports Mayer’s assessment. To take just one example, Witness 174 (the FBI blacked out almost all witnesses’ names before releasing the 302s) was one of a number of witnesses along the Connecticut shoreline, 50 miles from the crash site. According to his 302, Witness 174 is a retired officer from the Judge Advocate’s office of the U.S. Navy, who tells the interviewing agents that, from his waterfront home in Rowayton, he first saw a “skyrocket” with an orange contrail streak up into the sky, then an orange fireball. The agents ask the witness if perhaps he was mistaken and actually saw the streak descending. “[blacked-out name] insisted it went up,” the agents note.

But apparently the CIA has not given accounts such as these much consideration. When Witness Group member Dennis Rodrigues queries the CIA about the rising streaks of light, CIA analyst #1 says, “It’s not important what our opinion would be on that. . . . It’s not important in terms of interpreting whether or not a missile was involved. It’s fire. It’s probably burning fuel.”

At this point NTSB director of aviation safety Bernard Loeb interrupts to gently remind Rodrigues that, since the CIA has concluded that the streak of light was not a missile, then it falls to the NTSB, not the CIA, to explain it. “I think you’re asking them something that they haven’t done, they haven’t worked on. . . . And so . . . in the end that’s going to be something the Board has to grapple with, Dennis, in its own analysis,” Loeb says.

In an odd twist, and notwithstanding Loeb’s comment that the NTSB would treat the streak of light as an aspect of its investigation into the aircraft’s mechanical and structural failure, the Safety Board ran some tests in April in which portable missiles were fired off the Florida coast. Spokesman Paul Schlamm told the Voice the tests were done to “fully complete” the work of the Witness Group, and did not turn up any new information.

Several relatives of the TWA Flight 800 victims recently marked the fourth anniversary of the crash at Smith Point Park on Long Island, where they broke ground for a memorial. Many if not most of the relatives blame Boeing for marketing a defective product. Given that view, they are not looking for an explanation for all those accounts of streaks of light rising in the sky.

But the few relatives who are unconvinced by the prevailing theory are not entirely alone in their dissent. The aircraft mechanics’ union, for instance, has written a submission that goes so far as to suggest that a (so far unidentified) external force caused the crash. Schlamm assured the Voice that, as with the eyewitness evidence, the board will take the mechanics’ submission into account when considering its final vote.

Inside the Center Fuel Tank

How certain is it that the TWA 800 explosion happened inside the center fuel tank? The National Transportation Safety Board has pointed to data recorded during a July 1997 “emulation flight” to make the point that the vapor-air mixture in TWA 800’s center tank was sufficiently heated, both by the outside air at JFK and by air conditioning machines running full blast just beneath the tank, to be flammable on the evening of the crash.

But one aviation fuels expert told the Voice that flammability is not the same thing as explosiveness. For one thing, he said, there are never uniform temperatures throughout an aircraft’s fuel tank. What that means, he said, is that ignition could get going in a warmer region of the tank, but then, when the burning reaction meets the cooler regions, it may simply die. The center tank of a 747 is a very large space—capable of holding more than 12,000 gallons—and sure enough, temperatures recorded inside the tank during the emulation flight varied widely.

The expert stressed that it is not only temperature, but also the presence of a sufficiently strong ignition source that decides whether or not a vapor-air mixture will explode. Only if ignition is vigorous enough, the expert said, can you assume that a spark will automatically set the whole thing off. “The size of the energy source is crucial,” he said.

A second expert agreed that ignition may produce a flame that may not have enough energy to sustain itself and may simply be snuffed out. The assumption that “ignition equals explosion” is not generally accepted, he said.

At the NTSB hearings in Baltimore, researchers specified the minimum energy needed to ignite a mixture created under ideal conditions in laboratory testing, but no expert testified that it would be possible as a practical matter to introduce enough electric current into TWA 800’s center tank to produce a dangerous spark. —R.D.