It’s a curious thing, this recently renewed debate over the cause of the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, which killed 217 people off the coast of Long Island. (An image of the memorial is at right.) Most folks thought the matter more or less resolved, but the emergence of investigators who took part in the initial probe offering an alternate theory on the crash along wirth assertions that the FBI and National Transportation Safety Board tampered with evidence have led to new controversy.
Controversy to the point where the NTSB is going to hold a briefing today in Washington, D.C., to talk about the renewed questions. The agency is “reviewing” a request filed by the former investigators to reopen the investigation.
The NTSM claims its initial probe was one of the agency’s “most extensive and exhaustive” investigations.
The central claim by the investigators–all of whom kept silent until they retired–is that the government’s official conclusion, an electrical failure in the gas tank, could not have caused the explosion that downed the plane. They also cite evidence which suggests that some outside force, possibly a missile, struck the plane. The second assertion bolsters the claims of a lot of Long Islanders who told the FBI they saw a missile-like object rise toward the plane. Those “eyewitness” statements were largely ignored in the initial investigation.
Here are some of the issues in dispute:
The NTSB could not find evidence to support its crash conclusion. The re-examination by the retired investigators and the work of physicist Tom Stalcup says traces of explosives inside and outside the plane, holes created by an outside force, “spike tooth” fractures suggesting a “high energy event, radar data showing debris flying off the plane at high speed and the witness statements all support the missile theory.
“A significant amount were created by objects that hit the aircraft from the outside heading inward,” a spokesman for the retired investigators says. “Because these holes were not consistent with the shoulder-fired missile damage, the NTSB dismissed them, even though they were consistent with damage caused by other types of missiles.”
While the NTSB did test for evidence of shoulder-fired missile damage and found none, it never tested for proximity fuse missile damage, the retired investigators point out.
After gathering hundreds of witness reports suggesting a missile rose from the surface toward the plane, the FBI sought to discredit those reports with a video created by the Central Intelligence Agency. That video was shown in the NTSB’s initial public hearing on the crash, and testimony from eyewitnesses was cancelled.
Whether all of this will turn into something more or remain in the realm of conspiracy theories remains to be seen.