ASHBURN, VIRGINIA: About one week after the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 that killed 230 people, I started to get information from sources inside the investigation that the disaster was likely caused by an explosion inside the Boeing 747’s giant center fuel tank. This was big news because everybody was still hot on the idea that a terrorist bomb or missile was responsible. When I brought this to my editors at CNN, where I was working as a correspondent, I was told, “Well what does the FBI think?” The information did not come from the FBI, nor was it a story law enforcement was keen to have out, for reasons that are not relevant to this post. (If you want to know more about that, it’s in Deadly Departure, my book on the crash. End of shameless plug!)
This same false integrity journalists have about giving two sides equal treatment even when areas of expertise are not equal is in full effect again in the story of the crash of TWA Flight 800 only these days the official investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board are pitted against a rag-tag team of amateur crash detectives, and the NTSB says it is obligated to keep mum.
Meanwhile the small band of alternative theory proponents have created a television documentary in which they suggest not one but three missiles are responsible for the crash. Hank Hughes a member of the group and a former NTSB investigator specializing in cabin interiors has also filed a petition with the NTSB asking for a re-examination of the official cause.
The NTSB is less than thrilled – no surprise – that their four year investigation, described by NTSB spokeswoman Kelly Nantel as “the most exhaustive to date,” has been reduced to a he said/she said scenario on television stations and newspapers around the world. A 400 page final report and 17,000 backup documents make a cumbersome and complex argument when placed up against the leader of the group Thomas Stalcup, a handsome physicist who is prone to the sweeping statement.
“More than half of the people involved in this crash don’t buy the official theory,” he told one reporter Tuesday afternoon explaining he’d done a poll.
Stalcup, Hughes and two others were standing outside the NTSB Safety Academy in Ashburn, Virginia waiting for reporters to emerge from a briefing by three of the men who were part of the original investigation, a presentation that was also to include a tour of the TWA Flight 800 wreckage.
Joseph Kolly, the agency’s director of research and engineering started off explaining that there were many parties to the investigation including Pratt & Whitney, Boeing, Honeywell, TWA, the unions of pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. Another two dozen international organizations, academic centers and laboratories also worked on assignments intended to find out why the plane exploded and what might have triggered the blast. Taken together, thousands of people worked on the case in one capacity or another. Of them, four have joined Stalcup’s campaign to challenge the official findings.
The opening scene of Stalcup’s film, which airs on EPIX on 17 July, begins in the same room where we toured following the Kolly’s presentation. It is an enormous indoor space where the reconstructed Boeing 747 now resides. It is ostensibly a teaching tool, but just as much a symbol of the lengths the board went to to understand what went happened. It wasn’t just the half million dollar mock up of 90 feet of fuselage rebuilt in Long Island and trucked to Virginia. Investigators went to Florida where test missiles were launched to gauge what eyewitness might have seen. In the California desert, airplane aluminum was fired on to examine the scars on the metal. Scaled down fuel tanks were built and exploded. Miles of aircraft wiring was examined and tested.
Waiting in the rain, Stalcup and his fellow filmmakers presume to know that all these experts are wrong. As Stalcup talked to each reporter he explained with a straight and earnest face what’s keeping more crash investigators from coming forward with the truth.
“We have Jim Speer threatened to be thrown off the investigation if he continued to ask questions. Rocky Miller, inside investigator was told, ‘Remember corporate memory, you better not ask any questions at this hearing. It was controlled, it was a tightly controlled investigation,” Stalcup said, concluding, “It raises a lot of flags.”
Well, not to Matt Ziemkiewicz, whose sister Jill, a TWA Flight attendant was killed in the crash. He described the investigation as “pretty much an open door”. If we wanted to talk to the investigators, we did, he explained. Jim Hurd president of the TWA 800 Family Association lost his adult son on Flight 800. “I think the NTSB did a good job,” Hurd said. “I don’t think the NTSB covered up anything, I don’t think the FBI did.”
Missing from this conversation is the NTSB. While the agency can talk about what it did in the past, while there is a petition to reconsider the probable cause, spokeswoman Kelly Nantel says the agency cannot speak to those claims. “That petition is under review,” Nantel said. “It would be inappropriate for us to comment.”
Undoubtedly the upcoming documentary will have many people talking about the TWA flight 800 disaster it is just that every opinion won’t be of equal value.