TWA Flight 800
It’s every traveler’s worst nightmare. Well up in the sky, over water, a jetliner disintegrates and sends everyone tumbling to their deaths in the sea below. Loved ones, with relatives or friends on the flight, hear the news first with disbelief, then shock, then unspeakable grief. All on board are lost, and the aircraft lies in a thousand pieces in the ocean.
All passengers and crew may be dead, but numerous eye-witnesses are very much alive. The plane was only a few miles off the coast of New York, there was still some light, at dusk, and dozens of people saw a plane explode and disintegrate. Except, the stories they tell are troubling. The entire accident becomes shrouded in controversy. Pedestrians on shore looking out to sea, and even pilots airborne in the area, report seeing a sharp upward rise of some light or object, toward the jetliner, and only then the explosion.
After a long and contentious investigation, authorities concluded that electricity somehow sparked in central fuel tank cavity, detonating gas vapor, causing the explosion. But that conclusion will forever remain controversial. The public statement of lead FBI agent James Kallstrom, that no observer had “suggested the presence of a missile,” was simply, flatly untrue. Was Kallstrom completely unaware of the large number of eyewitnesses who were convinced a strike came from below? Or was he under pressure, and under orders, to produce a whitewash of the event, for whatever reason?
And why was the Central Intelligence Agency so vested in the investigation that they even produced an animated film designed specifically to refute the missile theory, and insist on the faulty fuel tank? While the FBI and CIA played pivotal roles in the investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board investigators felt pushed aside, and sometimes manipulated. Exactly what was that all about?
We may have more questions than answers about this tragic crash, but the appearance of a less than honest investigation is strong.
For this reason we open the file, Just What Did Happen to TWA Flight 800?
A STUDY IN CONFUSION
Here at MindOverMsytery we put our extensive list of cases in five categories. Some are essentially about mysterious Death or Disappearance, others about Corruption and Conspiracy, some highly Scientific, others about Psychological mysteries, and many are under the category Historical. Like the Lost Colony, or matters the go farther back.
We place some mysteries from more recent history in the category, but the point is, all these stories cut across categories.
The relatively recent Historical mystery, the fateful Flight 800 of July, 1996, could be in any category! It was a species of Death Investigation. A lot of pure Science weighs in on figuring out what the heck might have happened. And with theories floating around the internet then (and just as strongly today, most alleging a government cover-up) it certainly fits the Corruption/Conspiracy category. There’s even a strong Social/Psychological component–matters of individual perception, and broad social perception.
Many a controversial mystery stands interpreted through personal politics, personal beliefs.
There are people who will proclaim any FBI report a fraud and coverup because, in their minds, the FBI always lies for political ends. Neither extreme will be paying very close attention to detail, to the evidence and logic presented in a specific case.
We at MOMystery like to think we look at facts, and science, and apply logic and critical thinking, without undue bias in any direction. Total, pure objectivity in humans may be an impossible goal, but it’s good to aim for it.
Serious students of the TWA 800 calamity will want to watch the best-known documentary, by Epix: “TWA Flight 800,” available on various streaming services. It’s a must-see for the serious analyst, about a 41 minute time investment.
It doesn’t pretend to objective analysis with no slant, mind you, it advocates for a point of view, it screams cover-up. The documentarians stand convinced they have a lot of evidence and common-sense on their side.
YouTube itself is rich in segments on TWA 800, from a couple minutes to an hour, we’ve seen most of them but can’t vouch for how responsible they all are. Any character can point a camera at himself, call it a documentary, and be on YouTube.
But it’s worth knowing how much deep analysis, as well as how much careless comment and accusation, the tragedy garnered.
It’s probably too late for an official re-do of the inquiry (as a New York Times reporter has called for), and if you’re someone with enough clout to make that happen–a President or some such–why would you? Talk about a can of worms that had best stay closed.
As you can see, however, the explosion will be the subject of analysis by true Mystery Buffs for a long, long time.
The following YouTube video gives a brief (4 minute) review of the case, leaning towards the official conclusions…
A half-dozen people involved in the original inquiry into the July 17, 1996, blast that killed 230 people on a Paris-bound flight out of JFK Airport claimed new evidence supports the oft-suggested missile theory.
“We’re are not speculating in the least,” insisted Tom Stalcup, co-founder of the Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization.
“We are basing our conclusion on the facts,” he said.
“Based on the evidence, we can push [THE NTSB’S] conclusions aside. I think the whole world should listen.”
The investigators – in a conference call promoting an upcoming documentary, “Flight 800” – charged the original probe ignored testimony from nearly 700 eyewitnesses and included evidence tampering.
In the film, a group of purported whistleblowers, including a number of aviation experts, claim that the official explanation for the crash of TWA Flight 800 was wrong. (EPIX)
New evidence suggests there were more than 100 traces of explosives found in the plane’s wreckage, and internal CIA documents suggest a cover-up, they charge.
And they referenced FAA radar evidence that reportedly pointed to a missile hit – although they declined to speculate if it was a terrorist attack or friendly fire.
Daily News, June 19, 2013
All of this of course has an anti-government, “something-fishy-with-this-accident” bias.
Certainly it’s plausible that, every nightmarish once-in-a-while, a spark gets loose in an aircrafts’s fuel tank area, and of course igniting fuel vapors will have disastrous results.
Then why all the commotion, and suspicion of the official version?
Partly because of the tales brought to us from journalists and documentarians, such as the Epix folks in their documentary on the flight. If even a third of it is true, it’s cause to wonder and take a second look.
To take a tiny, yet not so tiny, example: in the film, a foreign-born witness to the explosion was questioned by the FBI, she said, and sharply reminded of her shaky immigration status. Essentially she felt she was told, no you didn’t see anything odd rising in the sky before that explosion. Remember that, if you want to stay in this country.
If her recollections are true, why would the FBI have such a dog in the fight, if they were just gathering eye-witness accounts? Why would they even know about her immigration status, the province of other federal agencies. Shouldn’t they be too busy with this investigation to be researching the background of every witness, or did some fine instinct tell them to check her out specifically?
Sherlock wants to know what the “angle” is, why the alleged intimidation of a witness, someone who was merely recounting her memory of what her eyes saw as she glanced out toward the ocean. If true, it just doesn’t “pass the smell test” for us.
We also note that the “half-dozen” investigators who have real doubts is a quite conservative number. Every time we see a new documentary or read a new exposé, some responsible-seeming person we’ve not yet heard of steps up to express real concerns about whether the official story got to the bottom of things, or whether it was even intended to.
Accusatory documentaries like “TWA Flight 800” may not stand on totally proven ground, and haven’t really moved the needle of public perception that far, but they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand by any means.
Sherlock at this point wants to know a lot more facts, do a lot more reasoning.
AN ALTERNATE, PILOTS TAKE
TWA 800 is back with us again, thanks to a new documentary from filmmakers Kristina Borjesson and Tom Stalcup. The movie is called, well, “TWA 800,” and it revisits the theory that the Paris-bound 747 was destroyed not by an explosion of vapors in its empty center fuel tank, as was concluded after the most expensive crash investigation in U.S. history, but by a missile — three of them, in fact.You’re liable to watch the film and come away suspicious of the official findings, which is of course the whole intent, but keep a few things in mind…
The first is that fuel tank explosions, uncommon as they are, are not unprecedented. Most occurred in the 1960s or 1970s, and they’ll be rarer still now that the FAA has mandated tougher wiring inspections and the installation of inerting systems for empty tanks, but according to Christine Negroni, whose book Deadly Departure is one of the most exhaustive explorations of the TWA crash, there have been at least 26 such explosions of one form or another, on both civilian and military aircraft. Most of these were minor in comparison to the catastrophe of flight 800, but not all of them were harmless. A tank explosion once destroyed a Thai Airways 737 parked at the gate in Bangkok killing a flight attendant. “Efforts by safety investigators to do something about the explosive nature of empty or nearly empty fuel tanks began back in the 1960s,” says Negroni.
My personal opinion is that yes, it was an accidental fuel tank explosion. And if you read the full report and weigh both sides, I think you’ll feel the same way. Frankly, the film is a little insulting to the many NTSB, FAA, and TWA employees who devoted so much time and effort to solving the flight 800 mystery.
Among the more interesting and tell-tale evidence: There had been intermittent problems affecting the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and number four (the 747 has four engines) fuel-flow indicators just minutes before the explosion. These anomalies would seem unrelated, but it so happens the wire bundle to both components passes just above the center fuel tank, and is the same wire bundle suspected of having caused the explosion. The problems with the gauge and the CVR were consistent with the wires short-circuiting, and this short-circuit would ignite the fuel vapors moments later. Investigators found the wires crimped and cracked, and suspect they’d been damaged during repairs that had taken place in this area two weeks prior. Additionally there had been water leaks reported in and around the center section galley in the days leading up to the crash. This galley sits directly on top of the wire bundle.
There are, meanwhile, several witnesses who claim to have to seen what looked like a missile streaking toward the 747. Or, that’s what they think they saw. What they likely were looking at was the outward trajectory of the explosion — flaming pieces of the airplane moving rapidly away from the initial blast.
That might sound far-fetched, but it’s very common for people to misinterpret or, to use a George W. Bush word, misremember, the relative motion and other details of fast-moving things in the air, particularly when their attention is drawn to them suddenly — missiles, meteorites, airplanes. Many of the TWA eyewitnesses who heard something and then looked up, were 50-60 seconds behind the event due to speed of sound. Moreover, as any crash expert will tell you, eyewitness accounts in general are notoriously unreliable. Read some of the eyewitness statements from of the crash of American Airlines flight 587, just to pick one. It’s unbelievable what people were absolutely convinced they saw.
And beyond the wreckage forensics and witness testimony, what about this missile theory? Missiles from where? An accidental firing from a nearby U.S. Navy ship, is the claim (no terrorist group ever took responsibility). But to accept that, we also have to accept the idea of a complete, utterly seamless coverup that has lasted the better part of 20 years. When the Navy accidentally shot down an Iran Air jet in 1988, killing 290 people, it took approximately five minutes for the truth to come out. Granted, the downing of a U.S. jetliner would, for Americans at least, be a lot more scandalous, but isn’t the idea of such an airtight conspiracy not just a little unrealistic?
And not for nothing, but the movie poster for “TWA 800″ couldn’t even take the time to show the correct aircraft. The plane in the picture has two engines, not four, and looks to be an Airbus A300. Not even close.
Patrick Smith, askthepilot.com, August, 2013
It’s always good to remember, for every theory, such as that espoused by the Epix documentary, someone will come along and say well, if you want a real expert’s opinion….and do a lot to deflate what you’ve just heard.
Let’s be clear: the official explanation of an accidental spark, triggering explosion, in the center fuel tank was not arrived at lightly, not rushed into production.
Literally tens of thousands of hours of expert investigative time went into the probe, from expert witness interviewers ( primarily FBI), to industry experts in the aircraft itself, to sleuths and scientists of all stripes, pouring over many thousands of shards of evidence, generating many thousands of pages of documents.
The span from the crash to the official NTSB announcement of findings was a good four years. Not much feeling of transparency, nor questioning, was entertained at the presentation, but believers can say, look:
If the fix was in from the start, wouldn’t they speed up the deal and have their final pronouncement within months, at most a year of the catastrophe and be done with it and move on, ‘nothing to see here folks, we’ve got this.’
(The counterpoint would be: “even if the official word was not bestowed for a while, unofficially the government agencies were touting the mechanical theory and downplaying the errant missile theory almost from the first. They claim concrete forensic evidence, not eye-witness blather, serves as the solid basis for conclusions, but they hadn’t had time to evaluation a thousand pieces of aircraft and run hundreds of tests before they began tossing out the missile theory.”)
In the end, officials told us ‘nothing much to see here’ except faulty wiring, but they did so involving scores upon scores of investigators, ten of thousands of documents. Just as Patrick Smith the pilot asks, how can secrets be kept by that many people? Except for the CIA, which apparently “injects secrecy serum into its recruits at their initiation,” people are generally quite lousy at keeping secrets. Someone will say something, if only regrets to a spouse on their deathbed, which finds its way out into the light, sooner or later.
There are many, if not most, who feel the announced government conclusion at the end of the day could be the only correct one. But interestingly James Donaldson, a retired Navy guy, believes the government was much, much too dismissive of the eye-witnesses.
Wasn’t the Navy the service that had the most to cover-up, in theory? But Donaldson is retired now, and may be a call-em-as-he-see-um kind of a guy.
Patrick Smith, askthepilot.com, August, 2013
So much point, and counterpoint. If you’re not quite sure what to make of all this, you’re not alone.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
The section of Federal Law quoted above makes clear: The NTSB is the lead agency in aircraft investigations, period. Then why the encroachment of other agencies–even early, official announcements that the FBI was “taking the lead”–to the point that the NTSB felt like a second fiddle? Do federal employees not read federal statutes, do they simply not abide by them?
These are all fair questions and under the circumstances, important ones.
Note the picture above, taken from an animated mini-film produced by the CIA, yes by Central Intelligence, that recreates the explosion with a clear message: A tragedy caused by a fuel tank spark, nothing more, nothing less.
Without debating the merits for a moment, let’s back up.
Why, for the first time in its history that we know of, is the CIA weighing in on a domestic, civilian airline disaster? Who asked them to?
If the extraordinary participation of the agency was meant to dissuade the darker suspicions, notions of deep, manipulative involvement by government in an accident, well, it has the opposite effect, doesn’t it?
By all means, we understand there could be temporary involvement from some CIA specialists, asked to look at the explosions as a possible terrorist act. But after ruling that out, they should disappear, back to their very full plate of responsibilities.
The longer you look at it, the more anomalous it seems. The CIA, going to the trouble of producing of film about how the explosion had not anything to do with what that agency usually deals with. It isn’t necessarily evil, but it is bizarre, CIA involvement in the final sales pitch.
Then there’s the matter of the merits. The CIA offers a plane after explosion, lighter now without a nose section, streaking upward perhaps another 4,000 feet before finally flipping, middle over tail, and plunging into the sea. Thus that several thousand foot climb accounts for the eyewitnesses who are sure they saw flame traveling upward.
With the nose broken off however the wings would presumably rise much faster, from lift, than the tail, and the flip, or stall from wings out of alignment with air, would occur it seems almost instantaneously. We might not describe the idea presented in animation as “ludicrous” as government critics have, but it doesn’t seem likely. We wonder what computer simulations, or other tragedies, offer as wisdom.
In all, for too many reasons to list here, there’s reason to doubt the official story told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We don’t necessarily allege, we certainly can’t prove a government cover-up, but be clear.
If any air disaster in history would justify a coverup in the eyes of top leaders, this is it. Can you imagine, for an instant, the public reaction to the announcement:
“A tragic cascade of mistakes in a naval training exercise resulted in a missile exploding near TWA Flight 800 and it’s subsequent destruction. Nothing we can say can convey our sorrow and apologies to the families of all victims.”
If you were the top guns in charge, would you bite the bullet and make such an announcement?
We’re by no means sure there was a cover-up, but the following comment post, again from askthepilot.com, caught our eye:
Now is it possible the U.S. Gov’t covered up TWA Flight 800 in order to protect a national security secret? Let’s say, hypothetically, the Navy was testing a submarine launched surface to air missile that relied on highly classified technology, e.g. advanced Aegis radar tracking-targeting technology. If this super secret technology tragically malfunctioned and led to the crash of TWA Flight 800, I could imagine the President choosing to cover up the cause in an ostensible effort to protect extremely sensitive national security secrets. I could also imagine there would be loyal, patriotic Americans in the FBI who would recognize the President’s authority to make that call, and would perform their jobs as faithfully and in confidence, as ordered by the Commander in Chief.
I don’t know what happened, but it is not difficult to imagine scenarios where a cover-up could plausibly be carried out successfully and for legal (if not legitimate) reasons.
From askthepilot.com, October 27, 2013
And you, fine deductive reasoner and mystery analyst that you are, what’s your take on all this?