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Rumor vs. fact: the Internet's role in TWA crash probe

TWA Internet graphic
December 8, 1997
Web posted at: 12:25 p.m. EST (1725 GMT)

(CNN) -- The Internet, where rumors abounded not long after last year's fiery crash of TWA Flight 800, is now the place to find massive amounts of information released by investigators themselves.

On Monday, the National Transportation Safety Board began a week of televised hearings, which are being Webcast live on CNN Interactive. The hearings got under way one day after the NTSB released more than 4,000 pages of findings on its investigation into the crash and the loss of 230 lives.

The documents, which can be viewed on both the NTSB and CNN Web sites, include some information that had not previously been made public:

  • Analysis of victims' autopsies revealed that as many as 47 of the 230 people on board the 747 may not have been killed instantly by the center fuel tank explosion that felled the plane.

    The NTSB concluded that 15 people may not have died instantly and four passengers definitely weren't killed by the explosion. In the cases of another 28 victims, the NTSB was unable to determine whether they might have lived for a short time after the explosion. But at least 183 of the passengers were killed instantly, the NTSB says.

Animation graphic
CIA Animation graphic   

  • The NTSB conducted simulations trying to recreate the conditions that existed inside the plane before the crash. They showed that temperatures in the center fuel tank of the plane were well above explosive levels, even before takeoff.

    That finding would seem to bolster the conclusion of federal investigators who suspect that volatile vapors collecting in the center fuel tank may have exploded and brought down the plane.

    The simulations showed that the temperature in the center fuel tank reached 145 degrees. Explosions can be touched off at 100 degrees.

Airing, discrediting conspiracy theories

By getting the news out via the Net, the NTSB is making information available to millions of people -- just as conspiracy theorists did soon after the Boeing 747 blew apart and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.

The first postings were speculation about the cause of the July 17, 1996, crash, but in the world of the Internet, where every viewpoint gets equal airing, the rumors took on an air of possibility, if not believability.

TWA Flight 800
CNN Interactive is offering a live webcast.

Read selected portions of the NTSB report

In the hearings, investigators will be under oath as they answer questions from experts and safety officials. Members of the general public, including friends and relatives of victims, will be in the audience.

Former ABC News correspondent Pierre Salinger accepted and then promoted a theory that circulated on the Internet claiming that Flight 800 was downed by a U.S. Navy missile and that the accident was covered up by the government.

Salinger later said he was giving up his independent investigation after the co-author of the friendly fire report, Ian Goddard, said his findings were "reckless and a mistake."

The "best antidote" for a conspiracy theory is to "insert facts into the rumor mill," says Lori Fena of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The San Francisco-based organization works to promote access to public resources and responsibility in online media.

The NTSB is to be praised for releasing its findings, Fena told CNN. "We feel very strongly that the best thing is -- rather than censor speech -- actually more speech."

Correspondent Brian Nelson contributed to this report.

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