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Witness reports of TWA 800 crash too conflicting, NTSB says

TWA Flight 800 wreckage  

March 21, 2000
Web posted at: 10:01 p.m. EST (0301 GMT)

In this story:

Public meeting expected later this year

Media reports may have influenced witnesses


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- More than 700 witness accounts of what happened the night that TWA Flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 230 aboard, are too conflicting to lead to any conclusions, federal investigators say.

Two new reports from the National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday again dismissed theories -- all based solely on witness reports -- that the Boeing 747 may have been downed by a missile in July 1996.

Investigators believe the crash was caused by a center fuel tank explosion possibly brought on by sparks from worn wiring, but their findings are still not complete.

Of the 755 people who reported seeing the explosion, only 38 said they saw a streak of light rising straight up or nearly so -- and those accounts "seem to be inconsistent with the ... flight path" of the plane, the NTSB said.

The NTSB, in its Witness Group Study report, said, "FBI witness interviewing was focused on the possibility that a missile had been used against the accident airplane. This focus may have resulted in bias on the part of some of the interviewers.

"Beliefs concerning the possibility of a missile attack may have biased or colored the word choices used in reporting the witness accounts; therefore, these accounts must be interpreted carefully."

A total of 258 witnesses observed a streak of light, the NTSB said.

Investigators believe the streaks of light may have been from the plane during some stage of its flight before it exploded in a fireball.

Public meeting expected later this year

The two reports -- the Witness Group Study and the Witness Group Chairman's Factual Report -- are part of an overall examination that is being compiled by the NTSB in advance of a public meeting on the crash expected later this year.

The NTSB witness reports conclude that the cause of the explosion cannot be determined through eyewitness accounts alone.

Some witness accounts were too vague, some were too specific, and some contradictory, investigators said.

Media reports may have influenced witnesses

The witnesses were on land, sea and air. Some were surfers. Many may have been influenced by news media reports about the explosion, investigators said.

Most did not realize they were watching a plane explode, thinking rather that what they saw was some sort of fireworks display or other event.

"At the time of their observations, almost none of the witnesses realized that they were witnessing an airplane crash," NTSB Witness Group Chairman David L. Mayer wrote.

"It is the opinion of each of the group members, that no study of the eyewitness accounts alone can prove or refute the contention that the crash of TWA flight 800 was due to any particular cause," Mayer added.

"The group strongly believes that the witness accounts must be studied together as a whole, and that they must be considered along with the physical evidence and all of the other information available to investigators."

TWA Flight 800 exploded in midair on July 17, 1996, minutes after takeoff from New York's Kennedy Airport.

Specials: TWA Flight 800
July 1997
Boeing delayed handing over study of fuel tanks to TWA 800 investigators
October 30, 1999
FAA proposes rules to reduce risk of fuel tank explosions
October 28, 1999
French kin of Flight 800 victims can sue in U.S., Judge says
October 7, 1999
TWA Flight 800, three years later
July 17, 1999
FBI suppressed likely cause of TWA 800 crash for months, senator says
May 9, 1999
Text of letter to the world from relatives of victims of the TWA Flight 800 explosion
July 18, 1998

National Transportation Safety Board
The Boeing Company
Aviation Safety Institute

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