Well, it is six years to the day that Trans World Airlines Flight 800 blew up shortly after leaving JFK on its fateful journey to Paris with the loss of 230 people. During that time we have seen various theories posted as to the nature of the crash, intense media coverage to waning interest in the case - to the conclusion by various authorities that the empty fuel tank exploded due to an electric spark somewhere in the vicinity of the area. While I am not 100% convinced that the cause of the crash has been established, I do feel that the disaster has eerie parallels to the recent crash of the China Airlines 747-200 off Taipei and it is interesting to note that crash investigators that worked on the reconstruction of TWA 800 are now working hard to find the cause of the CA 747-200 crash. On this day of reflection, I just wanted to extend my thoughts and prayers to those lost and those that were left behind. Forever in our hearts...
JFK International Airport July 17, 1996 was just like any other day at a busy international airport. On Wednesday the plane that would become the fatal Flight 800 to Paris had touched down in New York after a flight that originated at the airport in Athens, Greece.
In New York, the gate agents for TWA's Flight 800 began announcing final boarding for the regularly scheduled flight to Paris. At the terminal, families said goodbye, fathers hugged their daughters, husbands and wives promised to call one another as soon as the plane landed safely. Inside the jumbo, the TWA cabin crew were checking seating assignments on the computer printout. Out on the tarmac, the baggage handlers were putting the last of the luggage aboard, while in the cabin, Captain Steven E. Snyder and his first officer Ralph G. Kevorkian were completing their pre-flight checklist.
On that humid Wednesday evening in New York, total strangers gathered to share a common fate, waiting outside TWA Terminal 5, Gate 27, to board a 7 hour & 15 minute flight to Paris. Among the passengers were a contingent of high school kids from Pennsylvania off to France for a field trip, an 11 yr old exchange student returning home after collecting basketball memorabilia, a Connecticut engineering manager planning a romantic interlude for the woman he hoped would agree to become his fiance, a mother who had overcame her fear of flying so she could tour medieval castles in a "bonding" trip with her daughter and a couple who fell in love as flight attendants 21 years ago and worked side by side on the New York-Paris route.
TWA N93119 had flown all over the world but in recent months it has served as a transatlantic carrier, flying mainly from Washington and New York City to Paris and points in the Mediterranean, including Tel Aviv and Athens. A TWA employee who was supposed to serve as first officer on Flight 800 Wednesday night says that N93119 was "flawless" on its Tuesday touchdown at J.F.K. He acknowledges that individual planes have their quirks but N93119, which he has flown about 60 times during the past 10 years, did not seem to have any.
Finally, all the passengers were seated and the jumbo jet was cleared for take-off. At approximately 8:02p.m, N93119 left the gate and taxied toward the runway. Minutes later, the jumbo lifted into the night sky. Passengers unbuckled their seatbelts and walked around the cabin. Other passengers settled back to watch the in-flight movie, or have a drink. No one on board could have known the fate that was waiting them just minutes away. As the Boeing 747 was preparing to leave it altitude of 13,000 feet and was preparing to ascend to 15,000 feet, a spark in the centre fuel tank triggered a series of events that led to the destruction of the jumbo jet and killed every person on board. Just after 8:31pm, eyewitnesses report a massive fireball and flaming wreckage falling from 13,700 feet above. From that point on, a tragedy had begun and a mystery as to what caused the downing of TWA Flight 800?
The discovery of a far-flung cargo door from doomed TWA Flight 800 could provide crucial evidence about what led to the crash. Investigators refused to go into details about the cargo door Tuesday but it's location on the seabed, ahead of much of the rest of the wreckage, could indicate that an explosion first occurred in the front cargo hold, disabling the plane and then shearing off the front part of the fuselage. The cargo door was found at a point earlier in the flight path than both the front and rear sections of the aircraft, which have been located on the seabed some ten miles off Long Island, said Rear-Admiral Edward Kristensen.
The Boeing 747 suffered a sudden and unexplained loss of electrical power, after which it broke into two parts and plunged in a ball of fire into the sea July 17. All 230 people aboard were killed.
Kristensen, pointing to a map, indicated the cargo door was found at least one mile (1.6 kilometres) to the southwest of the front part of the plane, which itself splashed down 2.4 miles (3.9 kilometres) southwest of the rear part of the aircraft. As of Tuesday, 171 bodies had been found, 165 identified and 157 turned over to the families, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) vice Chairman Robert Francis said.
Investigators have refused to say what they think caused the crash, just minutes after it had taken off from John F. Kennedy airport in New York bound for Paris. They had earlier suggested it might be due to a bomb, a ground-to-air missile or a mechanical malfunction. Asked whether one theory stood out, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) lead investigator James Kallstrom, who Monday briefed President Bill Clinton at the White House, said Tuesday "In my mind, yes there is but I cannot share it with you" he added. "I imagine when we get more of the plane up here, we will know the answer" Kallstrom said.
Meanwhile, navy recovery vessels, assisted by divers and robots, were continuing to pull wreckage from the seabed some 100 feet down. The USS Grasp remained anchored over the rear end of the aircraft and on Tuesday brought up the skin of part of the fuselage, part of a galley, some closets and a number of seats, Francis said. The USS Grapple, which arrived on the scene Tuesday, was expected to start operations around midnight and would try to lift part of the front section of the plane. "We are very interested in that large piece of wreckage" Francis said but added that because of the tangle it was difficult to know whether it was all one piece and whether it included the cockpit area?
Investigators have also located three of the Boeing's four engines but they were deemed "not a priority issue" after being examined by remote cameras, Francis said. The sudden decapitation of the jetliner is similar to how a Pan Am 747 was downed over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and investigators are also looking at the data recovered from a DC-10 of the French airline UTA which crashed over the Niger desert in 1989. In the Lockerbie case, investigators concluded that a bomb had been placed in the forward baggage compartment. Kallstrom said investigators were checking the background of all passengers "There is a possibility that this was a criminal act" Francis told CNN Tuesday. "We would like to look for instance at the records that came out of the cockpit voice recorder in terms of sounds and do comparisons between the cockpit voice recorder of Pan Am 103, UTA 772 and see if we learn anything" he added. But he said "It is doubtful that the recording alone will be definitive in determining the cause of the catastrophe."
The loud noise at the end of Trans World Airlines Flight 800's cockpit voice recorder is more consistent with a fuel explosion than with the sharp sound caused by the bomb that brought down Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, sources close to the investigation said yesterday. Specialists who analysed the recording have reluctantly concluded it probably will not tell them why the Boeing 747 plunged into the ocean off Long Island last month, killing all 230 people aboard. The sound could have been a fuel tank explosion but it also could have been a bomb that was different from the Pan Am blast. It even could have been a rapid structural break-up, the sources said.
A comparison with numerous other voice recorders from past airplane bombings, fuel tank explosions and structural disasters did not find an exact matching sound. And although the sound has the characteristics of a "fuel-air mixture" explosion, at least one other bombing has produced a somewhat similar sound, officials said. Complicating the investigation further, a sound spectrum analysis of the recording has failed to pinpoint the location of an explosion or to detect the characteristic signature of a "wave pulse" -- or shock wave -- from a bomb. The wave pulses buried in the recording are too poorly defined, perhaps because of acoustics of the airplane's structure or the location of the explosion, the sources said.
When the "black boxes" with the voice recorders were discovered in the weeks following the July 17 crash, it was hoped they might allow investigators to determine whether the crash was an accident or sabotage. Instead, the analysis, along with other findings, has left some perplexed, deepening the mystery of what happened aboard Flight 800. "The recording didn't tell us what we needed to know" one senior law enforcement official said. "This is very frustrating." Like other evidence, the recording adds to a wealth of knowledge of what did and did not happen to the 747 but not why? The FBI also has failed to find any explosive residue on aircraft parts and metallurgical tests conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board so far confirm a major explosion but not whether a bomb or some cataclysmic mechanical failure did cause it. "You would think by now they [forensic experts] would have found something but they haven't" another law enforcement official said. "They are working around the clock but haven't pulled up the stuff that will give them the answer."
Investigators have determined that something traumatic, almost certainly an explosion, happened to the aircraft on the right side of the fuselage near where the right wing is attached. This area includes the centre fuel tank, which was largely empty except for 50 to 100 gallons of residue that would have left the tank filled with fumes. The area is badly burned and damaged. Investigators are now reconstructing the section on scaffolding but much of it still has not been recovered. Among the possible causes of the explosion is a bomb in the area that then caused the fuel tank to explode, or some mechanical defect that ignited the fuel tank. Sound spectrum analysis of cockpit voice recorders has proved to be one of the most effective means for spotting and describing explosive damage. The Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie left such a detailed explosive signature that the recording alone was evidence of a bomb.
Safety Board investigators compared the TWA voice recording with those from the Pan Am bombing and several other crashes that involved bombings, fuel tank explosions and structural break-ups. In addition, they compared it with explosive tests conducted by British aviation safety authorities. Even though the sound lasted only a short time before the doomed aircraft's electricity was cut off, specialists were able to determine how rapidly it grew, its intensity and other characteristics. Unlike the rapid onset of the Lockerbie bombing sound, the TWA sound grew in intensity at a slower rate and lasted longer, officials said. The sound was "not terribly inconsistent" with a centre fuel tank explosion that destroyed a Philippine Boeing 737 in 1990, the officials said. In that case, the source of ignition was never determined but investigators suspected wiring had been installed inside the tank and perhaps caused a spark. The TWA tape was also compared with recordings recovered from the bombings of an Air India plane in 1985, a French UTA DC-10 in 1989, an Avianca Colombian Boeing 727 in 1989 and a TWA 707 in 1974. Investigators also used for comparison the explosive decompression of a United Airlines 747 when a cargo door blew off in 1989.
Retired TWA captain Harry Pierce did a lot of living in the Boeing 747 that crashed July 17 off Long Island. He first flew it from London to Chicago on May 16, 1978. He knew its yoke, its rudder pedals, its redundant systems. He watched the stars from its cockpit, cruising over the Atlantic in a big strong machine. It was like flying a building. It never felt fragile. It seemed fault-free, steady, easy. When he heard how its massiveness came apart in a thousand strewn pieces, he was stricken. He felt for the 230 passengers and crew first and then unexpectedly for something intangible. "It's kind of sad in a way that this beautiful machine had to end up this way'' Pierce said in an interview last week. "I spent so many hours in that airplane. It's sad that it had to end up with such a tragic end. I'd rather see it parked in a bone yard somewhere.''
It was a venerable aircraft, twenty-five years old. It was No. 153 off the Boeing assembly line on July 15, 1971. Throughout its 93,000 hours on more than 16,000 flights, modern-day airline history unfolded. Aircraft changed -- its upper-deck cocktail lounge went the way of bell-bottoms. Pilots came and went and 25 of the world's 1,081 other Boeing 747s were lost to accidents. But the plane marked by Registration No. N93119 delivered flight after flight. There were problems from time to time but experts say they were not extraordinary. Parts broke, corroded and cracked. Pilots shut down engines at least 13 times as a precaution and made at least 25 unscheduled landings in airports around the world but only twice do records show engines quitting on their own and passengers probably never noticed. There are no reports of accidents or incidents that incapacitated the plane or injured its passengers and crew. This, the pilots who flew it say, was no lemon. Although they hate to speculate and emphasise that the history of aviation disasters is built on the unthinkable and unforeseen, the pilots felt instinctively that a bomb is the likeliest explanation, though not yet ruled the official cause.
There are three other cases of 747 midair catastrophic disintegration. Bombs caused two. Semtex plastic explosives in a boom box stowed in a cargo container blasted a Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing all 259 on board and 11 on the ground. A suitcase bomb exploded on an Air India flight off the Irish coast in 1985, killing 329. A crash in Madrid in 1976 killed 17 and lightning was the suspected cause - it was a less-than-complete disintegration of an Iranian Air Force freighter. Even the 747 of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 that was hit by two Soviet missiles in 1983 did not explode -- the pilot flew for several minutes, sending radio communications, telling passengers he was making an emergency descent, before the plane crashed into the sea. One United Airlines 747 flight just outside Honolulu in 1989 landed with only two of its four engines and a gaping fuselage hole after a cargo door malfunction. "It's a very strong airplane" said William Waldock, president of System Safety Inc., an aviation-safety-consulting firm in Prescott, Ariz. "It's hard to bust one.''
James McIntyre, a retired TWA captain and international air-safety investigator, has helped investigate 40 aviation accidents. As a pilot, he logged hundreds of hours on N93119. He also knew Flight 800's pilot, Captain Steve Snyder. McIntyre was anguished when he first heard the crash had no survivors. As the details unfolded he became more unnerved. "I was astonished because it had to be a violent and tremendous force because later on I learned the crew hadn't even gotten a message off'' he said. "They were highly disciplined, very experienced and superbly trained. They would have gotten that message out, even if they only had a second.'' The pilots all kept coming back to the bomb scenario. But aviation history provides this caution - in 1987, a South African Airways 747 Combi -- half passengers, half cargo -- burst into a fireball, killing 159. For months, aviation experts pointed to a bomb. It wasn't until a detailed voice recorder reading, more than two months later, that investigators could tell the crew had become disoriented. Finally, they discovered hazardous materials leaked on plastic had created highly flammable acetylene gas, commonly used for welding.
It took millions of components to make N93119. It took 18 months, from start to finish on the assembly line, to put them together. Now, investigators are fishing pieces from the sea, light honeycombed parts from the water's surface and seat cushions, sheet metal and insulation from below. Deeper, much of the wide heavy wings waits. By week's end, divers had recovered only a small percent of the total wreckage. It will take putting the pieces together, in one last way, to understand why so many died?
Trans World Airlines Flight 800 broke apart shortly after it was hit by some sort of catastrophic event, with the nose and forward passenger cabin hitting the Atlantic Ocean a mile and a half before the wings and rear cabin crashed into the sea, investigators said today. The pattern of break-up was similar to that of Pan American Flight 103, which was destroyed over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 when a bomb in its forward cargo hold exploded. In that crash, the nose and cockpit of the Boeing 747 cracked away to the right almost like a door turning on a hinge. Because of the TWA plane's lower altitude -- it had ascended to 13,700 feet after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport -- there was less difference between the outside air pressure and the pressurised cabin. As a result, a much larger bomb would have been required to down the TWA plane, investigative sources said.
The sources said the TWA plane's forward cargo hold contained baggage, with cargo containers loaded to the rear. James K. Kallstrom, the FBI official in charge of the criminal part of the investigation of the July 17 disaster, said today that the probe is approaching a turning point. He said he has asked recovery teams to look for certain pieces of wreckage, which he would not characterise further. Kallstrom said "I hope within the next 48 hours we'll get something that we think is going to give us the clues needed to come to a final conclusion about what happened to the plane when it crashed shortly after take-off, killing all 230 people aboard." Law enforcement officials said over the weekend that they are "80 percent to 90 percent certain" that a criminal act was responsible for the crash -- such as a bomb or, less likely, a missile -- and the FBI could take over the investigation as early as this week. Today, a senior law enforcement official said privately that the only hold-up now is that investigators do not have conclusive evidence of a bomb. The official stressed "conclusive."
Navy divers have found new pieces of aircraft debris that, coupled with enhanced radar data, indicate that the wings and rear passenger cabins flew on alone for perhaps as long as 24 seconds after the front of the aircraft broke away and then disintegrated in a fireball. However, Norm Wiemeyer, radar specialist for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said much work needs to be done before the plane's final movements will be known for certain. Navy divers have recovered its nose landing gear in a debris field about a mile and a half to the southwest of the main field of wreckage, indicating that it was one of the first pieces of plane to fall away. Nearby was a section of the forward fuselage with the first and business-class section. Wreckage of the cockpit area had not been found as of late today. Rear Adm. Edward Kristensen, heading the Navy salvage effort, said several of the Navy's salvage ships will search the new field, as well as another wreckage field found another two miles farther southwest. He said he does not yet know what is in the third field.
NTSB vice Chairman Robert Francis refused to speculate about what may have happened to produce the debris pattern but said "Things that come off first tend to be indicators of what happened." Investigators are puzzling over why initial radar tracks did not indicate such large pieces falling off so early in the flight but said the main piece of the fuselage might have shielded other sections from radar waves. In any case, it is now becoming clear that whether a bomb or some other form of explosion brought down the plane, the event originated at the front of the aircraft. The most likely location is the forward cargo hold, which stretches from the front of the wings to the nose area. The forward end of that hold ends just below the rear of the cockpit and the distinctive spiral staircase used in older 747s for access to the upper deck. Directly ahead of the cargo hold are the electrical cabinets, which contain all the plane's electrical connections. An explosion there would explain why all electricity ended at about the same moment to the plane's radar transponder, which reports the plane's altitude and identity to air traffic controllers, as well as the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder. All radio capability would also likely be wiped out, even if the crewmembers were not incapacitated. Analyses of the two recorders showed normal activity and conversation, which was suddenly and inexplicably cut off. On the cockpit voice recorder, which uses four microphones to pick up cockpit sounds, the tape ends with a brief split-second loud noise, an ending that investigators said was similar to what was found on the cockpit voice recorder recovered from the Pan Am 103 crash.
Francis said recovery of bodies is proceeding, with 153 of the 230 victims having been found and brought up from the ocean bottom. So far, 147 of the bodies have been positively identified, 146 families notified and 142 bodies released to relatives. Francis said the identification process has gained speed because the Suffolk County medical examiner is getting more information on fingerprints and other documentation from families. Francis also said a large new section of fuselage was found today that might contain more bodies. He said it apparently was from the centre-to-rear portion of the plane and was found in the main debris field where most other fuselage sections and wing and engine parts had previously been found. There also were indications that another one of the plane's four engines has been located in that field. With the two already located, this would indicate that the wings and engines remained with the main part of the fuselage.
Two floors below the cockpit of a 747, in a small, windowless room accessible through a floor hatch, is the airplanes nerve centre. All of the plane's in-flight electrical systems converge there, feeding power to everything from the two "black box" flight recorders to the plane's radar, navigation and communication systems. The only thing separating it from the forward cargo bay is a bulkhead wall. An explosion that destroys the electronics bay turns a jumbo jet into a glider. A blast that also severs the hydraulic flight control cables, located above the bay, turns a 747 into a 590,000-pound rock. "It's the brain centre of the entire plane" said Geoff Collins, a spokesman for the International Airline Passengers Association, a Dallas-based non-profit group. "Anything on the airplane that is electrically powered has a wire through there" added an official at The Boeing Co., which makes the plane. Investigators in the crash of TWA Flight 800 said yesterday that they had separated parts of the electronics bay from a massive jumble of metal, glass and wire that once made up the plane's cockpit. The bay sits on the bottom of the plane's nose, its outside hatch just behind the front landing gear -- close to the areas where investigators are looking for the source of an explosion.
Following the downing of an Air India 747 off the coast of Ireland in June, 1985, an Indian government panel said the flight had been bombed and recommended regulators and aircraft manufacturers consider moving the electronics bay to better protect it from a bomb hidden in passenger luggage in the forward cargo hold. The British agency that studied the December 1988 break-up of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, also noted the electronics bay's vulnerability and suggested using military techniques to better protect planes from explosive damage. Specifically, it recommended adopting "multiplexed . . . redundant systems using distributed hardware to minimise the risk of a single area of damage producing a major system disruption." Those recommendations, however, have not been implemented. A Boeing official said the electronics bay was intentionally situated near the plane's nose to shield it from an exploding engine on the planes wings. And several aviation experts questioned the wisdom of trying to make a 747 bombproof. "What you have to look at is how many thousands of aircraft you have out there and how many actually end up having a bomb on board" said Walter Korsgaard, a former Federal Aviation Administration official now living in Virginia. "It's minuscule, in comparison with the total number." He called the Indian government recommendation "invalid" and said the location of the electronics bay "probably had nothing to do with" the plane's destruction.
The British report on the Lockerbie bombing also concluded that the plane's air conditioning system, with ducts and vents running the length of the cabin, was a "significant factor" in transmitting the bomb's explosive energy throughout the plane from the front cargo hold near the bay but Korsgaard (the former FAA official who investigated that disaster) said it's never been proved the bomb's blast wave spread that way. "It's all theory" he said. "They don't really know." The FAA said yesterday that it did not respond to the British and Indian reports because foreign governments issued them. The electronics bay is important to TWA Flight 800 investigators because evidence from the plane's two black box recorders shows the plane lost all power without warning before plunging into the Atlantic in a ball of fire, killing all 230 passengers and crew aboard. The plane's radar and communications equipment, also located in the electronics bay, failed at the same moment -- along with the recorders themselves, also powered from the same source.
Flight recorders recovered from the Air India and Lockerbie disasters revealed the same sudden loss of power, communications and radar. The Indian panel investigating the Air India disaster found circumstantial evidence that a bomb destroyed that flight. British and American investigators said they had forensic proof that the Pan Am 747 that blew up over Lockerbie was bombed. Generators on each of a 747's four engines produce the plane's electrical power and wires carrying the power are routed through the electronics bay. Navigation and communications equipment and a battery that provides backup electrical power when the engines fail, also are located in the bay. "From an airplane point of view, they're in the right place" said a Boeing official who asked not to be identified. "I guess terrorists think they're in the right place, too."
A majority of passengers aboard TWA Flight 800 likely died instantly of a violent separation of the skull from the spinal cord - a sledge-hammerlike blow to the head caused by a sudden, drastic change in the aircraft's speed and direction, the Suffolk County medical examiner said. "The most likely injury, and I think that happened to everyone up there, is that they got a phenomenal whiplash," he said. "First of all, massive facial and head injuries from hitting the seat in front of them and then a secondary whiplash back- ward which basically was going to sever all function of the brain stem." "It's like a car smashing into a brick wall at 400 mph" Charles Wetli said. "It's an extremely violent whiplash, a separation of the skull from the spinal cord, an instant loss of consciousness.'' Wetli, the county medical examiner, has been in charge of autopsies conducted on the 196 crash victims found so far. All 230 people aboard Paris-bound Flight 800 were killed when the plane exploded July 17. "They were all totally unconscious or dead by the time they hit the water Wetli said. " "The plane was going at 400 mph, it suddenly changes direction, the fuselage is open so all this air and pressure is going into the cabin and there's a sudden decompression.'' Wetli said passengers displayed two types of injuries - those consistent with an explosion or those caused by an extreme change in speed, cabin pressure and altitude.
Wetli said investigators were analysing injuries suffered by passengers to see if anything could be learned about the nature of the explosion. Investigators say the jetliner broke apart at 13,700 feet and erupted into a fireball at 9,000 feet, then dropped into the Atlantic about 10 miles off Long Island. On Thursday, a mammoth, badly scorched slab of wing was brought ashore along with a piece of the fuselage. The wing piece had originally been described by authorities as 75 feet long but the piece loaded onto a flatbed truck was about 60 feet long, with a clean cut where it apparently was trimmed to make it easier to handle. The wreckage is being taken to a hangar to be reconstructed and studied. The investigators main theory is that a bomb was placed in the front cargo hold where passenger luggage was stored but they have not ruled out a missile or a catastrophic mechanical malfunction. Among the conceivable explanations for mechanical failure is a fuel-tank explosion, possibly triggered by a fire in a fuel pump, a source close to the investigation said. In August 1995, the 747's manufacturer, Boeing, recommended customers check fuel pumps for electrical problems. A federal source said there is no record that Flight 800's jet had undergone the inspection. Another unrelated scenario being studied is an explosion in the centre fuel tank, which is between the wings.
One of the leading eyewitnesses to the events that led up to the explosion and subsequent fiery crash of TWA Flight 800 is Major Fredrick C. Meyer. He and co-pilot Chris Bauer were with the Air National Guard and were practicing helicopter landings at the time the plane came down. Meyer, an attorney from New York, spoke about his observations and his eyewitness account of three separate explosions involved in the crash of the TWA jet. While coming in for a landing "I leaned forward in the seat to look up and look forward and began to scan the sky more intently than I would normally" because a small plane had also been cleared for landing on the same runway. "At that moment, I saw a streak of light moving to my left. It was very curious because it looked like the streak that you would see from a shooting star at night, except that it was broad daylight and the streak was red-orange in colour. It lasted three to five seconds. There was an interval in which I saw nothing and then on the same trajectory, further to the left, I saw a high velocity explosion, which to me looked like ordnance, a warhead exploding. Whether it was a naval rifle, or a missile, or even a bomb, I couldn't distinguish. Then a second high velocity explosion took place; it was brilliant white light. The third event was the fuel explosion" [from the jet]. What followed, "is a moment in time that I remember. We were headed toward the lake of fire in the ocean [the burning aircraft] and I looked up and saw debris still falling out of the sky, and I told my co-pilot to 'slow it down, let the stuff fall' so that we would not fly under the falling debris." They were the first to arrive at the scene, but found no survivors in the water.
When asked whether he had formulated any sort of conclusion from what he'd seen, Meyer said, "I stay away from it because I really believe that I had a unique view and that it was my responsibility to be as precise and as accurate and to make no assumptions. I really believed that the NTSB would probably do video tapes of an interview and be very interested in having a very accurate, very carefully explained, but not analysed eyewitness report to help them determine the cause. I was wrong....That is what leads me to suspect, not to know, but to suspect that they knew before they asked the first question, what brought that aircraft down, because they did not seem to be interested in anything they heard [from eyewitness accounts]."
As a military pilot, Meyer has twenty-five years experience with aircraft and he sees many fatal flaws in the NTSB, FBI and CIA's official scenario. "Let's focus on the aircraft accident and a rational determination as to what caused it", he said, "and the [probabilities of an] explosion of a fuel cell with slosh quantities of Jet A. It is an extraordinarily safe fuel. And all this talk about wires [causing a spark to ignite the fuel tank]--there are no wires in the centre fuel tank. The electric [fuel pump] motors and the wires are on the outside of the fuel tank. They are bolted to the outside wall of the tank, the rotating shaft of the pump penetrates a gland seal into the fuel tank, the impeller and the housing are inside, but there are no wires in the fuel tank. "So then, the NTSB comes out and says 'there was an arc in the wiring.' We're talking about a 12-volt system here, measured in milliamps, and they say 'an arc between two 12-volt wires'. There are no wires! Tell me that the NTSB doesn't know that? Could an overheated air conditioner be the cause of the aircraft explosion? Major Meyer unequivocally says "no". "The circuit breakers are set at 130 degrees Fahrenheit [temperature at JFK airport was in the 70's]. People came to me who fly the 747 and said 'if an overheated air conditioner could set off the centre fuel tank, I wouldn't be talking to you. Because I've set on the tarmac at Riyad [Saudi Arabia] in 130 degree ambient temperature, popping those circuit breakers back on and keeping those air conditioners running so that I wouldn't fry in the cockpit while I was waiting for take-off clearance, with an empty centre fuel tank! I am one of five-hundred pilots who have done that since the 747 came out, and none of them have ever exploded.' It doesn't happen. The [NTSB] stories are scientifically impossible."
American crash investigators attempting to rule out that TWA flight 800 was shot down, have been firing missiles into the night sky. Stinger missiles were fired from special launchers in conditions similar to those on the night of the disaster when 230 people on board the plane were killed as it exploded 12 minutes after leaving New York's JFK airport. Several witnesses reported seeing a streak of light in the sky just before the crash in July 1996, prompting theories that a missile had been fired at the aircraft.
Investigators believe they will eventually find that an electrical fault ignited an almost empty fuel tank. It will take weeks to analyse their findings from the missile tests. "This was a dotting of the i's and crossing of the t's," an investigation source told America's Washington Post. "Some concluded it would be very nice to know for certain what you would see. What would a missile look like?" The FBI, which has announced that it is no longer looking for a smoking bomb or missile, did not participate in the tests.
After four years of anguish and theories about a terrorist bomb or a misguided U.S. missile, families of people killed on TWA Flight 800 finally will get an official answer this week. While hearings in Washington will provide closure for some, pilots, aviation authorities and the public, as well as many relatives of the 230 victims on the doomed Boeing 747, may never receive a satisfactory explanation, for the biggest question remains - what was the origin of the spark that ignited flammable vapours in the jetliner's almost empty centre fuel tank, resulting in an explosion that brought down the Paris-bound 747 just 13 minutes after it took off from New York City on July 17, 1996?
The National Transportation Safety Board, which has spent more than $35 million conducting the agency's most exhaustive investigation, will begin a two-day hearing Tuesday. The review is expected to identify a number of contributing factors but stop short of pinpointing a single probable cause of the disaster, according to sources who have read a draft of the agency's final report. However, the report will lay to rest theories that TWA Flight 800 was downed by an act of terrorism or so-called friendly fire.
Critics of the Federal Aviation Administration's performance as the regulator of commercial aviation safety point to more than two dozen cases of fuel tank explosions destroying military planes and airliners over the last 35 years--and to the alleged reluctance until now by the FAA and Boeing Co. to invest in research that could have prevented the disaster. Safety investigators cited a catastrophic explosion inside the centre fuel tank of Flight 800 as the most likely cause, although conspiracy theories, based on flashes seen in the sky moments before the blast, emerged in the early hours of the case. These theories were embraced by FBI officials who immediately linked the crash to the then-ongoing trial of Middle Eastern terrorism suspect Ramzi Yousef in the World Trade Centre bombing and to the opening two days later of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The Flight 800 crash occurred against the backdrop of the Oklahoma City bombing a year earlier. "The FBI seemed convinced that an intentional act brought down the plane, and that view influenced the management of the investigation," said Kenneth Jordan, who at the time was the NTSB's managing director.
Almost a year after the tragedy, NTSB Chairman Jim Hall testified before Congress that there was no evidence of a bomb or a missile in the wreckage. Additional testing, including a re-enactment of the flight this year, provided no basis for a criminal act or "friendly fire" launched from a U.S. military plane or ship bringing down the plane.
Safety board investigators determined that fuel-rich air vapours or the 50 gallons of fuel sloshing around in Flight 800's 12,890-gallon centre fuel tank became super-heated and exploded, causing the plane to break apart. The precise ignition source has remained a mystery. The probe, however, has focused on air-conditioning packs located directly underneath the centre tank and on metal contaminants found on electrical wires inside the tank that might have created a spark.
The air conditioners were running as TWA 800 sat for several hours at Kennedy International Airport, heating up the fuel and the vapours in the tank to a potentially explosive state. The plane was designed with the idea that the large volume of fuel in the centre tank would cool the air-conditioning units. Instead, the air conditioners may have dangerously overheated the fuel. The final report on the accident will include several dozen specific recommendations to the FAA, aircraft manufacturers and the airlines. It will focus primarily on the design and the vulnerability of aircraft fuel tanks and on the risk posed by damaged wiring insulation--a particular concern on older aircraft like the 25-year-old 747 used for TWA Flight 800, sources close to the safety board said. Brittle or chafed wiring insulation possibly caused an electrical arc, or short-circuit, that might have ignited a deadly mixture of jet fuel and oxygen. "The investigators generally stop only when they feel they've done everything they can reasonably do to produce a scientifically justifiable result," said safety board spokesman Paul Schlamm, adding that the draft report on TWA 800 was circulated to the board members in early August so they could prepare for the hearing. "The board members can make changes to the proposed conclusions and recommendations, and there have been times the board sent a report back for more work. But after the unprecedented amount of research and testing that has been done in this case--including bringing more than 1 million pieces of wreckage up from the Atlantic and reconstructing 95 percent of the aircraft--there is nothing further left to investigate," Schlamm said.
Five months after the crash, the safety board advised airlines against operating their fleets with the centre fuel tank almost empty, which for cost-saving reasons had become common practice to lighten the load on shorter flights. In addition, to further eliminate the possibility of an explosion, the NTSB recommended that carriers add inert gas, which lacks the oxygen needed for combustion, to fuel tanks. The FAA also directed airlines to make changes eliminating other possible ignition sources and has proposed a new series of inspections and safety standards--affecting not only 747s but some 7,000 planes in the U.S. fleet--that will ensure continued safety as the airplanes age, said Beth Erickson, the FAA's director of aircraft certification. A parent of one of the TWA 800 victims maintained that the FAA's new emphasis on fuel tank safety and the NTSB's final accident report are irrelevant. "Am I supposed to be happy that terrorism has officially been ruled out? I don't give a damn about what the NTSB says caused the accident, because nothing will bring my daughter back," said the woman, who did not want to be identified. Her daughter was among a group of teenagers from Montoursville, Pa., who were heading to Paris as part of a high school French club. Jim Hurd of Severn, Md., whose 29-year-old son, James Hurd III, was killed in the accident, accused the FAA of not meeting its obligation to ensure airline safety. "The FAA said that there was never a fuel tank explosion like this one, but then we found out about the blast involving a Boeing 737 in the Philippines [in 1990] and other cases going back to the 1960s," Hurd said. "I just don't understand why the FAA didn't react to the threat sooner."
The FAA has issued 40 directives on fuel tank safety in response to safety board recommendations after the Flight 800 disaster. The FAA also has placed a higher priority on wiring-related issues in the wake of the crash. In the spring of 1998 the FAA temporarily grounded hundreds of Boeing 737s for inspections and repairs after finding a short-circuiting hazard during spot checks of wires inside aircraft panels and under flooring. Last year, the agency ordered more 737s inspected after finding evidence of chafed wiring insulation that runs near that jet's centre fuel tank. The FAA is expected to complete testing in the fall that could lead to airplanes routinely receiving an infusion of nitrogen gas or liquid nitrogen between flights during hot weather. The nitrogen replaces oxygen, which is essential for combustion, and the flammability risk is greatly reduced. FAA officials also defended the agency's record. "The existing regulations have done a pretty good job of safety over the years, but that hasn't stopped us from seeking additional improvements," said Associate Administrator Thomas McSweeny. "We are on the verge of some real breakthroughs as far as fuel flammability is concerned and our ability to reduce accidents." Many of the relatives of the TWA 800 victims understand the immense task of isolating the exact source of the ignition and therefore are more concerned that the apparent design deficiencies in the 747's centre tank be corrected, said Thomas Ellis, a member of the Chicago-based Nolan Law Group, which is part of a steering committee assigned to prove the liability for the case. "Some of the families want to hear, if it is in fact true, that there was not any terrorist activity or a friendly fire missile that brought the plane down," Ellis said. "The families want to put all these questions to rest."
Staunch critics of the FAA said it has taken the deaths of 230 passengers and TWA employees for the agency to become convinced that fuel tank design and operations are vital to preserving safety. "I expect the NTSB's final report to say TWA 800 was a preventable accident if the FAA had actually responded to the warning signs about fuel tank volatility and wiring problems over the past 35 years instead of sleeping with Boeing," said Christine Negroni, an aviation journalist who is the author of a new book on TWA 800 titled "Deadly Departure." "The NTSB probable-cause hearing will spotlight to aviation authorities that fatal problems existed, were allowed to exist and now must urgently be addressed" Negroni said. "It shouldn't have had to take Flight 800 to teach them this."
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