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Conspiracy theories, outrage swirl around TWA 800 plane crash

By Thom Patterson, CNN
updated 6:49 PM EDT, Thu June 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Debate rages over documentary about 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800
  • Allegations that NTSB/FBI crash probe was flawed fuels conspiracy theories
  • Ex-FBI investigation chief and ex-NTSB officials defend conclusions that crash was an accident
  • Documentary suggests that missiles may have shot down the plane, killing all 230 people aboard

Editor's note:

(CNN) -- Behind nearly every American tragedy is a conspiracy theory. Think JFK's assassination, even the 9/11 attacks.

So it's no surprise that there have been similar doubts that a fuel tank explosion caused the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, killing all 230 people aboard.

That was the government's ruling, yet it never quelled the theory that a missile strike brought down the plane off the coast of Long Island, New York.

So why is an upcoming documentary set to air on an obscure cable channel that rehashes this theory getting so much attention this week?

"TWA Flight 800" is based on the claims of former federal investigators who took part in the initial probe and witnesses who say their accounts were not taken seriously.

They want a do-over.

A section of the wing of TWA Flight 800, which crashed July 17, 1996, floats in the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island, New York, on July 18, 1996. A new documentary "TWA Flight 800" claims that the explosion that caused the crash was not an accident. A section of the wing of TWA Flight 800, which crashed July 17, 1996, floats in the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island, New York, on July 18, 1996. A new documentary "TWA Flight 800" claims that the explosion that caused the crash was not an accident.
TWA Flight 800
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Photos: TWA Flight 800 Photos: TWA Flight 800
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Hank Hughes, who was the National Transportation Safety Board's senior accident investigator for TWA 800, is among the ex-investigators featured in the documentary calling for a new probe into what caused the crash.

He said the NTSB's final report on the crash ignored witnesses, misinterpreted bomb residue and misanalyzed radar data.

Bottom line, according to the documentary producers: "One or more ordnance explosions outside the aircraft caused the crash."

The documentary does not identify or speculate about who fired the ordnance; it says only that they most likely were launched from the waters off Long Island.

They are hoping that the NTSB, the nation's top investigative agency for plane crashes, will determine that by reopening the investigation into TWA 800.

All this is fueling suspicion that has been around for years about a possible cover-up.

One story that surfaced shortly after the crash laid out an elaborate conspiracy theory that the crash was caused by a U.S. Navy "friendly fire" incident that was followed by a huge government cover-up. The report was co-authored by Ian Goddard, Mike Sommers and the late former ABC News reporter Pierre Salinger.

Goddard later apologized for the report, saying "my effort to pin the crash ... on the Navy was reckless and a mistake."

Related: Still 'paranoid' after all these years

Conspiracy talk gets people's attention. As CNN commenter RUDucky2 points out: "Conspiracies are very comforting creatures." They give society "bad guys to hunt." And any proof that contradicts the conspiracy "becomes more 'proof' that there's a conspiracy."

And colleagues of the ex-investigators featured in the documentary fear this is nothing more than an effort to stir up conspiracy theories.

"I would never be part of any cover-up. Period," former NTSB official John Goglia told CNN. Goglia, who served on the five-member NTSB during the investigation, said he "took offense" at any suggestion that his team ignored evidence. None of the evidence detailing how the plane fell apart supports the missile theory, he said.

It's not like the missile theory was dismissed at the outset, said the top FBI investigator on the case, James Kallstrom. "We took the ... possibility a missile brought down the plane very, very seriously," Kallstrom told CNN. "We we're 99% sure that this was not a terrorist."

But what about that remaining 1%?

I would never be part of any cover-up. Period.
John Goglia, NTSB member 1995-2004

There are parts of the investigation that can point "any way you want," Goglia said. But most importantly, he said, the pieces of the puzzle have to be judged "as a whole."

How about the former investigators in the documentary who are calling for a new probe? Do they stand to gain anything from all this?

"There's no motive in this other than we want to get it straight," said Hughes, who wrote a petition asking the NTSB to reopen its investigation. "It's a matter of personal integrity for us ... we have nothing to gain financially or otherwise..."

Read the petition

Kallstrom said he doesn't question Hughes' motives, but he added, "I just wished if someone felt that strongly about speaking like that, they could have brought it to someone's attention ... commencing with the investigation -- not wait 17 years until they get their pensions in their pockets and then come out with it."

Longtime aviation journalist Sylvia Adcock thought one point was worth noting: The documentary boasts that "investigators finally break their silence." That's interesting because, Adcock says, one of the investigators actually testified during a Senate hearing in 1999. "It would seem that if he had something more pertinent to say he would have said it long ago," Adcock wrote in her CNN opinion piece.

Much of the documentary -- which was made available to the media before its July 17 premiere -- rests its theory on an analysis of the evidence by the film's co-producer, Tom Stalcup, who was not involved in the probe. A longtime and passionate critic of the official investigation, Stalcup has been vexed by witness accounts that are at odds with the fuel tank explosion theory.

Of course if the disaster happened today, the world would weigh in almost immediately on what witnesses saw based on countless smartphone videos of the blast that would pop up online.

So, will the NTSB have to go back to square one all these years later?

Kallstrom -- a former FBI assistant director -- said he wouldn't be opposed to the FBI joining with the NTSB to take another look at the case.

The agency told CNN it has received Hughes' petition and "will respond to the petitioners once a determination is made." The NTSB noted that petitions must be based on new evidence or "on a showing that the Board's findings are erroneous."

New evidence? The basic claim that a missile hit the plane isn't new, wrote Adcock. The radar data doesn't appear to be new either, according to journalist James Polk, one of CNN's lead producers covering the disaster.

"As far as I can tell from reading the petition, there's no new evidence," Polk said. "But their alternative interpretation of existing evidence and their assumptions alone probably will not be sufficient to persuade the NTSB to start all over again from scratch."

Whatever comes out of all this, it's unlikely to smother the debate and the conspiracy theories swirling around one of aviation history's most mysterious plane crashes.

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