TWA Flight 800 alternative theories
Flight 800 wreckage recovered and reconstructed.
|Date||20:31 EDT July 17, 1996
00:31 UTC July 18, 1996
|Site||Atlantic Ocean near
East Moriches, New York
|Operator||Trans World Airlines (TWA)|
|Flight origin||John F. Kennedy Int'l Airport|
|Stopover||Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport|
|Destination||Leonardo da Vinci Int'l Airport|
TWA Flight 800 alternative theories, advocated by independent investigation groups and individuals, including 6 members of the original National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation team, allege that the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 (TWA 800) was due to causes other than those determined by the NTSB. The NTSB stated that the probable cause of the crash of TWA 800 was an explosion of flammable fuel/air vapors in a fuel tank, most likely from a short-circuit. Alternative theories state that the crash was due to either a U.S. Navy, terrorist missile strike or an on-board bomb. On June 19, 2013, a documentary alleging that the investigation into the crash was a cover-up made news headlines with statements from six members of the original investigation team, now retired, who also filed a petition to reopen the probe.
- 1 Background
- 2 Search and recovery
- 3 Radar data
- 4 TWA 800 flightpath after explosion
- 5 Electromagnetic interference
- 6 Dissenting views from the investigation
- 7 William Donaldson
- 8 Peter Lance
- 9 John Barry Smith
- 10 References
- 11 External links
TWA 800, a Boeing 747-131, was a scheduled international passenger flight from New York City, New York to Rome, Italy, with a stopover in Paris, France. At about 20:31 EDT, on July 17, 1996, about 12 minutes after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), TWA 800 exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, New York. Of the 230 passengers and crew on board, no survivors were found, making TWA 800 the second deadliest aircraft accident in the United States at that time.
While investigators from the NTSB arrived on scene the following day, many witnesses to the accident had seen a "streak of light" that was usually described as ascending, moving to a point where a large fireball appeared. There was intense public interest in these witness reports and much speculation that the reported streak of light was a missile that had struck TWA 800, causing the airplane to explode. Consequently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) initiated a parallel criminal investigation alongside the NTSB's accident investigation.
Search and recovery
Pieces of the airplane wreckage were discovered floating on and beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean about 8 miles south of East Moriches, New York. The main wreckage was found scattered on the ocean floor in an area about 4 miles long by 3 1/2 miles wide. In one of the largest diver-assisted salvage operations ever conducted, over 95% of the airplane wreckage was eventually recovered. Recovered wreckage was transported by boat to shore and then by truck to leased hangar space at the former Grumman Aircraft facility in Calverton, New York, for storage, examination, and reconstruction.
As wreckage was recovered, preliminary testing indicated the presence of explosive residue on three samples of material from three separate locations of the recovered airplane wreckage (described by the FBI as a piece of canvas-like material and two pieces of a floor panel). These samples were submitted to the FBI's laboratory in Washington, D.C., which determined that one sample contained traces of cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine (RDX), another nitroglycerin, and the third a combination of RDX and pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN); these findings received much media attention at the time. While investigators from the FBI viewed these positive tests as strong indications of a criminal act, the NTSB was more cautious, noting the lack of any patterns on the recovered wreckage characteristic of an explosion.
Meanwhile TWA chief 747 pilot Robert Terrell Stacey, who was participating in the official investigation as a TWA representative, became convinced that a reddish-brown substance observed on the backs of recovered passenger seats was suspicious, and possibly indicative of explosive residue or rocket fuel. Working with journalist James Sanders, and Sanders' wife Elizabeth, a TWA flight attendant, he removed items from where the wreckage reconstruction was taking place, specifically the samples of seat fabric as well as documents related to the investigation. Later, with the information provided by Sanders, the Riverside Press-Enterprise published a series of articles alleging that the substance was in fact consistent with unexpended rocket fuel from a missile that struck TWA 800.
On December 5, 1997, federal prosecutors charged Sanders, his wife Elizabeth, and Stacey with theft of government property. The Sanders' defense attorney Bruce Maffeo described the prosecution as "extremely vindictive" and insisted that the couple had a First Amendment right to take the sample and crash-related documents to expose a cover-up. In April 1999, both Sanders' were convicted of stealing evidence from civil aircraft wreckage, and were sentenced to probation (Stacey had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the case previously). James Sanders later authored a book, The Downing of TWA Flight 800, in which he proposed that TWA 800 had been downed by a missile, and that a government cover-up had taken place so as to not panic the public.
Ultimately the NTSB was unable to determine the exact source of explosive residues found on the wreckage (some of the possibilities considered were contamination from the aircraft's use in 1991 transporting troops during the Gulf War or its use in a dog-training explosive detection exercise about one month before the accident), however the lack of any other corroborating evidence associated with a high-energy explosion led the NTSB to conclude that "the in-flight breakup of TWA flight 800 was not initiated by a bomb or missile strike. The NTSB also determined the locations and appearance of the substance found on the seatbacks was consistent with adhesive used in the construction of the seats, and additional laboratory testing by NASA identified the substance as being consistent with those adhesives (results which Sanders disputed).
|This section requires expansion with: background of radar coverage of TWA 800's flightpath. (April 2011)|
Unidentified radar tracks
One of the first widely reported criticisms of the official investigation was by Pierre Salinger, who on November 7, 1996, held a press conference in Cannes, France. He stated he had proof that TWA 800 was shot down by friendly fire, and the incident was being covered up by the government. Salinger said "he was basing the claims on information he saw in a document given to him six weeks ago by someone in French Intelligence with close contacts to U.S. officials", but refused to name his source. CNN quickly found Salinger's document to be "a widely accessible e-mail letter that has been circulating for at least six weeks on the Internet's World Wide Web." Salinger's evidence was actually an e-mail from Richard Russell, a retired airline pilot.
Salinger's previous position as White House Press Secretary, as well as long time correspondent for ABC News, initially gave credence to his statements, transforming them from "internet conspiracies" into the mainstream. However, under scrutiny, his allegations, and the reports issued with his collaborators, became the subject of much criticism in the media. Bob Francis, the vice chairman of the NTSB, was quoted as saying "He was an idiot, he didn't know what he was talking about, and he was totally irresponsible."
TWA 800 flightpath after explosion
|This section requires expansion with: TWA 800 flightpath before fireball. (April 2011)|
Another proponent of the U.S. Navy shootdown theory and prominent critic of the zoom climb scenario was H. Ray Lahr, a retired United Airlines pilot. Lahr, recipient of the Laura Taber Barbour Air Safety Award by the Flight Safety Foundation in 1994, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit in U.S. District Court, Central District of California, Western Division, on November 6, 2003, against the NTSB and CIA. Lahr sought documentation and data denied to him through previous FOIA requests that the NTSB and CIA used for their calculations of the zoom climb, which was used to produce the CIA animation. When asked for his reasons for seeking this documents, Lahr stated "I believe that I could show that the zoom climb never happened. If the zoom climb never happened then they've got to find out what the eyewitnesses saw and the only logical conclusion there is that they saw a missile."
On August 31, 2006, the District Court issued an initial ruling that the evidence submitted by Lahr as justification for his FOIA lawsuit was "sufficient for the plaintiff to proceed based on his claim that the government acted improperly," and that Lahr should be granted access to some, but not all, of the documents he was seeking, based on the FOIA statutes and case law. In a further ruling on October 4, 2006, the court finalized the list of documents that the NTSB and CIA must provide to Lahr (again granting some, but not all, of his FOIA requests). While the court reaffirmed its previous ruling that Lahr had provided proof "sufficient to suggest that the government acted improperly", it also clarified that this "conclusion is based on a characterization of the evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, but does not reflect or constitute any finding by the court." Upon being handed this verdict by the court, the agencies involved claimed the documents had been "lost" and could not be located, according to the plaintiff.
On April 9, 1998, Elaine Scarry's article in The New York Review of Books, titled "The Fall of TWA 800: The Possibility of Electromagnetic Interference", was published. Scarry, a professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard, proposed that electromagnetic interference, also referred to as "High Intensity Radiated Fields" (HIRF), could have been the cause of the TWA 800 crash, specifically energy emitted from a U.S. military craft. Later that year, The New York Review of Books published a series of letters between Scarry and NTSB Chairman James Hall discussing the possibility of HIRF being causal to the accident, and what steps the NTSB was taking in its investigation to determine if it was a factor.
After the adoption of the Final Report, Scarry published another article in the New York Review of Books titled "TWA 800 and Electromagnetic Interference: Work Already Completed and Work that Still Needs to be Done". While praising the initial research done by the NTSB into HIRFs, she also stated that much more additional research was needed. Scarry criticized what she felt was a bias in the investigation to the "meticulous" detailing of events inside the airplane, while not fully exploring the electromagnetic environment outside the airplane. Scarry focused on a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion close to TWA 800 as being a possible source of electromagnetic interference and cause of the CWT explosion on TWA 800.
Dissenting views from the investigation
As an invited party to the NTSB investigation, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) submitted a report into the public docket. In this report the IAMAW disputed the NTSB's sequencing study, and proposed a breakup sequence that started on the lower left side of the airplane, when a high-pressure event "unzipped" the fuselage. The IAMAW wrote that "a major event may have occurred on the left side of the aircraft. It could have contributed to or been the cause of the destruction of Flight 800." and that "the CWT exploded, but as a result of the airplane's breakup, and was not the initial event."
The IAMAW criticized the accuracy of the "Tag database" used to document the recovered wreckage and the reliability of the witness statements. The IAMAW strongly criticized the FBI's conduct during the investigation, including the undocumented removal by FBI agents of wreckage from the hangar where it was stored. However, they also commended the NTSB staff, management and board members for their cooperation during the investigation, and stated that "The fact the media has put and other groups continue to bring pressure on the board, we find it very comforting that the focus was not changed due to these forces." They concluded that "The causes and circumstances that contributed directly to the accident are unknown."
||This article possibly contains original research. (September 2007)|
William S. Donaldson, a retired Naval officer, formed the Associated Retired Aviation Professionals (ARAP) to investigate the TWA 800 crash. He authored the "Interim Report on the Crash of TWA Flight 800 and the Actions of the NTSB and the FBI" (The Donaldson Report), which was released on July 17, 1998, two years before the NTSB's Final Report. In it, Donaldson stated that TWA 800 was struck by two missiles, fired from the water, most likely as a terrorist attack, and subsequently the FBI and NTSB conspired to cover-up this fact due to political pressure.
Donaldson disputed the CWT fuel/air vapor explosion scenario, stating that "In the history of aviation, there has never been an in-flight explosion in any Boeing airliner of a Jet-A Kerosene fuel vapor/air mixture in any tank, caused by mechanical failure." Eyewitness, debris field, metallurgical, and victim injury evidence were all cited by Donaldson proof of the missile-attack scenario. Donaldson acknowledged James Sander's theory of an accidental shootdown, and did not rule out U.S. Navy involvement; however, he viewed circumstantial evidence of a terrorist attack "more compelling." 
Much of the report dealt with Donaldson's assertions of a conspired cover-up by the FBI and NTSB, in co-operation with the Justice Department. Donaldson believed that the Clinton Administration wanted to hide the actual cause of the crash for political reasons, specifically the upcoming presidential elections. Donaldson concluded his report with the request that Congress should hold Congressional hearings into the crash and/or request that the Justice Department appoint an Independent Counsel to investigate (neither of which happened).
||This article possibly contains original research. (April 2011)|
In his book Cover Up: What the Government Is Still Hiding About the War on Terror, Peter Lance wrote that TWA 800 was blown up by a bomb intended to disrupt the trial of terrorist Ramzi Yousef, the nephew of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and planner of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Using official FBI 302s (informant documents), Lance asserts that Ramzi Yousef orchestrated the attack from prison in an effort to get a mistrial for master-minding the Bojinka plot. Lance claimed that the FBI had prior knowledge of this plot from a prison informant, but did not act on it.
Lance cites similarities to Operation Bojinka, a prior plot developed by Yousef and Mohammed in which a very small (and thus more easily carried on board) "blasting cap" device could theoretically be used to ignite the plane's fuel tank. Backing the theory is the fact that the FBI found residues of RDX, the same explosive that would have been used in a bomb like this. The occurrence of a similar incident (i.e. the explosion of TWA 800) while Yousef was safely in custody could have been used to justify a mistrial. However, it was later assumed that the RDX residue came from a K-9 unit training exercise for a bomb sniffing dog in which RDX was placed within the plane for the dog to sniff out. This exercise occurred at St. Louis airport about 1 month before the explosion of TWA 800's center wing fuel tank. The tail number of the plane on which the training exercise took place was apparently not recorded, it was only noted that it took place on a "wide-body" aircraft, where three planes matching that description passed through the airport that day. Lance actually interviewed Herman Burnett, the K-9 officer who conducted the test and he told Lance that he believed that he'd done the test on another 747—not the plane that became the fatal flight.
This revelation shattered the FBI's only explanation for the presence of high explosive residue on the passenger deck above where the fuel tank exploded. Lance suggests the decision to ignore that evidence was due to a Yousef-type RDX Bojinka-style bomb, possibly placed by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed or his operatives. Lance further interviewed William Tobin, the FBI's chief metallurgist who claimed that there was "no indicia" of bomb damage on TWA Flight 800. But when Lance asked him what he had used as a model to reach that conclusion---the bomb aboard Pan Am Flight 103 or the casio-nitro IED Yousef placed aboard Philippines Airlines Flight 434 in a test of the Bojinka device on December 11, 1994---Tobin admitted that he didn't even know of the PAL 434 bombing incident.
Lance contends that the decision by FBI and Justice Department officials to blame the crash of TWA Flight 800 on a fuel tank accident vs. an act of terror, was to impeach the credibility of Gregory Scarpa Jr. a capo in the Colombo crime family who spent 11 months from 1996-1997 in an FBI directed sting of Yousef while he was housed at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (Federal jail in Lower Manhattan). Scarpa Jr., whose father Gregory Sr. had been a Top Echelon Criminal Informant (TECI) for the FBI for more than 30 years, was going to argue at trial that the crimes he had been indicted for were at the direction of his father while he was a TECI and thus sanctioned by the Justice Department. Thus, Lance contends, in order to undermine Scarpa Jr.'s credibility and preserve a series of 75 Mafia prosecutions in the Eastern District of New York (EDNY), a decision was made by various DOJ officials to discredit Scarpa Jr. and thus ignore Yousef's connection to the crash of TWA 800. One of the most significant revelations by Yousef documented in a series of FBI 302 memos obtained by Lance  was a threat Yousef had made to put a bomb on a U.S. airliner during his Bojinka trial so that he would get a mistrial. The crash of TWA Flight 800 occurred on the eve of the most damning evidence against Yousef being admitted at trial; the very next day after the crash, Yousef, who was representing himself in federal court, asked the Judge for a mistrial.
John Barry Smith
||This article possibly contains original research. (April 2011)|
In an online theory discussing several in-flight Boeing 747 breakups, Mr. Smith proposes that TWA Flight 800 is only one of several incidents where a malfunctioning cargo door may have opened in-flight, resulting in destruction of the aircraft. The incidents discussed include TWA Flight 800, as well as United Airlines Flight 811, Air India Flight 182, and Pan Am Flight 103, although the latter two flights were destroyed by bombs planted on the aircraft. A PDF copy of the theory is also stored on the NTSB's web server, although the information is not an NTSB report.
- ABC (June 19, 2013). "TWA Flight 800 documentary hints at crash cover-up". Retrieved June 19, 2013.
- ABC (June 19, 2013). "TWA Flight 800 documentary hints at crash cover-up". Retrieved June 19, 2013.
- NTSB Final Report, p.1
- Aviation Safety Network. "ASN Aircraft accident Boeing 747-131 N93119 East Moriches, NY". Aviation Safety Network (Web). Retrieved April 5, 2011.
- NTSB Final Report Appendices, p.313
- NTSB Final Report, p.230
- NTSB Final Report, p.3
- NTSB Final Report, p.262
- National Transportation Safety Board. "NTSB Board Meeting on TWA 800 August 22, 2000, Morning Session". Retrieved April 5, 2011.
- NTSB Final Report, p.4
- NTSB Final Report, p.62
- NTSB Final Report, p.65
- NTSB Final Report, p.63
- NTSB Final Report, p.118
- Don Van Natta Jr. (August 31, 1996). "More Traces Of Explosive In Flight 800". The New York Times August 31, 1996. Retrieved January 12, 2010.
- "Source: Traces of 2nd explosive found in TWA debris". CNN August 30, 1996. Retrieved January 13, 2010.
- CNN: "Couple arraigned on TWA evidence theft" December 9, 1997
- Riverside Press-Enterprise News Archive for July 17, 1998
- CNN: "Pilot and author charged with stealing TWA 800 wreckage" December 5, 1997
- CNN: "Mystery of Flight 800: Three years after crash, questions linger" July 17, 1999
- NTSB Final Report, pp.258-259
- NTSB Final Report, p.259
- CNN: "Federal agencies deny TWA Flight 800 shot down by missile" November 8, 1996
- CNN: "'Pierre Salinger Syndrome' and the TWA 800 conspiracies" July 17, 2006
- CNN: "Salinger offers new 'evidence' in Flight 800 missile theory" March 12, 1997
- TIME Magazine: "THE WORST PUBLIC PERFORMANCES OF 1996" December 23, 1996
- Flight Safety Foundation: The Laura Taber Barbour Air Safety Award
- Freedom of Information Advocacy Coalition, Inc.
- ABC 7 Eyewitness News: "Major court ruling in TWA Flight 800 case"
- United States District Court, Central District of California, Case No. CV 03-8023 AHM (RZx)
- United States District Court, Central District of California, Case No. CV 03-8023 AHM (AJWx)
- "TWA Flight 800: The Impossible Zoom Climb". Raylahr.entryhost.com. Retrieved June 19, 2013.
- "The Fall of TWA 800: The Possibility of Electromagnetic Interference" Elaine Scarry, The New York Review of Books, April 9, 1998
- "An Exchange on TWA 800" Elaine Scarry, The New York Review of Books, July 16, 1998
- "TWA 800: A Second Exchange" Elaine Scarry, The New York Review of Books, August 13, 1998
- "TWA 800 and Electromagnetic Interference: Work Already Completed and Work that Still Needs to be Done" Elaine Scarry, The New York Review of Books, October 5, 2000
- "Swissair 111, TWA 800, and Electromagnetic Interference" Elaine Scarry, The New York Review of Books, September 21, 2000
- "THE FALL OF EGYPTAIR 990" Elaine Scarry, The New York Review of Books, October 5, 2000
- International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers: ANALYSIS AND RECOMMENDATIONS REGARDING T.W.A. FLIGHT 800
- Interim Report on the Crash of TWA Flight 800 and the Actions of the NTSB and the FBI
- Peter Lance. List of FBI 302 informant documents. Retrieved December 4, 2008.
- ISBN 0-06-054355-8
- CNN Article.
- "Boeing 747 Electrically Caused Inadvertent Cargo Door Openings". Montereypeninsulaairport.com. June 13, 1991. Retrieved June 19, 2013.
- "TWA Flight 800 Cargo Door blowup pictures". Montereypeninsulaairport.com. Retrieved June 19, 2013.
- National Transportation Safety Board. "Aircraft Accident Report: In-flight Breakup Over the Atlantic Ocean Trans World Airlines Flight 800" (PDF). NTSB AAR-00/03.
- National Transportation Safety Board (2000). "Aircraft Accident Report: In-flight Breakup Over the Atlantic Ocean Trans World Airlines Flight 800 (Appendices)" (PDF). NTSB/AAR-00/03 Appendices.