TWA Flight 800 alternative theories

Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight 800, a Boeing 747-131, tail number N93119, crashed on July 17, 1996, about 20:31 EDT (00:31, July 18 UTC), in the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, New York. TWA Flight 800 was a scheduled international passenger flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), New York, New York, to Charles de Gaulle International Airport (CDG), Paris, France. The flight departed JFK about 20:19, with two pilots, two flight engineers, 14 flight attendants, and 212 passengers on board. All 230 people on board were killed, and the airplane was destroyed. [ NTSB AAR-00/03 Abstract] ]


While investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) arrived on scene the following day, much initial speculation centered on a terrorist attack, [,9171,984902,00.html TIME Magazine: "Who wishes us ill?" July 29, 1996] ] [ CNN: "Bomb still leading theory in TWA crash" August 1, 1996] ] and consequently the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) initiated a parallel investigation into the crash. On November 18, 1997, the FBI announced that no evidence had been found of a criminal act, [ CNN: "FBI concludes no criminal evidence in TWA 800 crash" November 18, 1997] ] and the NTSB assumed sole control on the investigation.

The NTSB investigation ended with the adoption of their final report on August 23, 2000. In it they concluded that the probable cause of the accident was "an explosion of the center wing fuel tank (CWT), resulting from ignition of the flammable fuel/air mixture in the tank. The source of ignition energy for the explosion could not be determined with certainty, but, of the sources evaluated by the investigation, the most likely was a short circuit outside of the CWT that allowed excessive voltage to enter it through electrical wiring associated with the fuel quantity indication system."

The NTSB's conclusions about the cause of the TWA 800 disaster took four years and one month to be published. The FBI's earliest investigations and interviews, later used by the NTSB, were performed under the assumption of a missile attack, a fact noted in the NTSB's final report. Six months into the investigation, the NTSB's chairman, Jim Hall, was quoted as saying, "All three theories - a bomb, a missile or mechanical failure - remain." [ CNN: "Six months later, still no answer to the TWA Flight 800 mystery" January 17, 1997] ] It is, however, normal for the NTSB to make such a statement when asked about an ongoing investigation. Speculation was fueled in part by early descriptions, visuals, and eyewitness accounts of this jet disaster, including a sudden explosion and trails of fire in the sky; particularly, trails of fire moving in an upward direction.

The two most prevalent specific theories around TWA 800 are that of a terrorist bomb on board, or a missile striking the plane (attributed to American armed forces by some and to terrorists by others). Those supporting these alternative explanations for the crash typically claim that the NTSB's explanation, above, was created as a cover-up; that the NTSB did not investigate sufficiently; or that the NTSB did not have all the evidence they should have to reach the correct conclusion.

Pierre Salinger

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. [ CNN: "Federal agencies deny TWA Flight 800 shot down by missile" November 8, 1996] ] 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. [ CNN: "'Pierre Salinger Syndrome' and the TWA 800 conspiracies" July 17, 2006] ]

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. [ CNN: "Salinger offers new 'evidence' in Flight 800 missile theory" March 12, 1997] ] [,9171,985752,00.html TIME Magazine: "THE WORST PUBLIC PERFORMANCES OF 1996" December 23, 1996] ] 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."

James Sanders

On December 5, 1997, federal prosecutors issued arrest warrants for James Sanders, a retired police officer, TWA chief 747 pilot Robert Terrell Stacey, who was participating in the official investigation as a TWA representative, and Sanders' wife Elizabeth Sanders, a TWA flight attendant. [ CNN: "Couple arraigned on TWA evidence theft" December 9, 1997] ] They were charged with stealing items from the hangar where wreckage reconstruction was taking place, specifically samples of seat fabric as well as documents related to the investigation. The seat fabric samples contained "reddish" residue, not present on other seats, that Sanders believed to be missile fuel (The FBI had declared the residue to be adhesive used in the seats). [ CNN: "Pilot and author charged with stealing TWA 800 wreckage" December 5, 1997] ] With the information provided by Sanders, the Riverside Press-Enterprise published a series of articles concerning the missile theory. [ Riverside Press-Enterprise News Archive for July 17, 1998] ] The NTSB then retested their samples and again declared the residue to be adhesive, results which Sanders again disputed, saying that testing by independent laboratories showed his samples not to be consistent with the composition of the expected adhesive, Scotch-Grip 1357 High Performance Contact Adhesive. When the NTSB began its public hearings into the crash, FBI deputy director James Kallstrom asked them not to discuss the residue.

Prior to the indictments Sanders had published his book "The Downing of TWA Flight 800", in which he proposed that TWA 800 had been downed by friendly fire, and that a government cover-up had taken place. The Sanders and their attorneys described the prosecution as vindictive; defense attorney Bruce Maffeo said the couple had a First Amendment right to take the sample and crash-related documents to expose the cover-up. [ CNN: "Mystery of Flight 800: Three years after crash, questions linger" July 17, 1999] ] In April 1999, both Sanders were convicted of stealing evidence from civil aircraft wreckage, and later that year both were sentenced to probation (they had been facing potential sentences of 10 years imprisonment). Stacey had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the case previously.

Later, with Jack Cashill, Sanders further expanded his theory in the book "First Strike: TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on America", stating that TWA Flight 800 was brought down by a Navy missile, whose intended target was a terrorist plane on a collision course with the passenger aircraft.

William Donaldson

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, 2 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. [ Interim Report on the Crash of TWA Flight 800 and the Actions of the NTSB and the FBI] ]

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).

Donaldson received support and funding from the advocacy group Accuracy in Media, who promoted his views. He died in 2001; the ARAP website is still active.

Elaine Scarry

On April 9, 1998, Elaine Scarry's article in the 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. [ [ "The Fall of TWA 800: The Possibility of Electromagnetic Interference" Elaine Scarry, The New York Review of Books, April 9, 1998] ] 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. [ [ "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] ]

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". [ "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] ] 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.

Scarry has since written about Swissair 111 and Egypt Air 990 crashes in connection with electromagnetic radiation. [ [ "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] ]

IAMAW submission

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. [ International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers: ANALYSIS AND RECOMMENDATIONS REGARDING T.W.A. FLIGHT 800] ] 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."

Ray Lahr

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, [ Flight Safety Foundation: The Laura Taber Barbour Air Safety Award] ] 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. [ Freedom of Information Advocacy Coalition, Inc.] ] 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 is that they saw a missile." [ ABC 7 Eyewitness News: "Major court ruling in TWA Flight 800 case"] ]

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," [ United States District Court, Central District of California, Case No. CV 03-8023 AHM (RZx)] ] 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). [ United States District Court, Central District of California, Case No. CV 03-8023 AHM (AJWx)] ] 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."

Peter Lance

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. Lance claimed that the FBI had prior knowledge of this plot from a prison informant, but did not act on it. [ISBN 006 054 355 8] 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. 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.


External links

* [ Jack Cashill's investigative articles on TWA Flight 800]

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