Six months later, still no answer to TWA Flight 800 mystery
January 17, 1997
From Correspondent Christine Negroni
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Six months into the most costly plane crash investigation ever, there are still more questions than answers about the deadly mid-air explosion of TWA Flight 800.
"All three theories -- a bomb, a missile or mechanical failure -- remain," Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Thursday.
The only constant in the investigation is that 230 people aboard the Paris-bound Boeing 747 are dead.
Six months into their probe of the July 17 crash off New York's Long Island, a small fleet of scallop boats are continuing to search the area where the plane went down.
"I suppose we have the chance of picking up the smoking gun," said Craig Mullen of Oceaneering International.
Members of the Oceaneering International team now are looking for the tiniest of pieces below the sand, hoping to catch something that an army of divers, working for three months, could not find.
The task is daunting.
A 747 weighs 200 tons, is 213 feet wide and 231 feet long. Even though more than 95 percent of the TWA 747 retrieved from the Atlantic now rests at the hangar where the NTSB investigators work, investigators continue to have no solid explanation.
As a result, these "tin kickers," as they are called, give their attention to a living room-sized metal box that is the plane's center fuel tank.
"We know the center fuel tank exploded," said NTSB Vice Chairman Robert Francis.
But that's all Francis can categorically say happened.
The cause of that explosion remains unknown and investigators' weekly mantra to the media and victims' families remains: It could have been a bomb. It could have been a missile. It could have been mechanical malfunction. We just don't know.
Off the record, criminal investigators were convinced a crime was committed. All they need is the proof.
Six hundred FBI agents have worked the case, conducting close to 4,000 interviews from eyewitnesses to families of victims. Even the bodies of the passengers were probed for clues.
"FBI agents were here and standing with us while we were doing the autopsies and taking the shrapnel that we found," said Dr. Charles Wetli of the Suffolk County Medical Examiner. "Virtually all of the bodies had shrapnel."
When sophisticated equipment detected explosive residue on the plane's wreckage, it seemed a promising lead. That was until the discovery that the plane had been used in the months prior to the crash to train bomb-sniffing dogs. And to the frustration of the investigators, as the days went on, they could find no part of the plane that showed bomb-like damage.
Eyewitnesses said they saw something that might have been a missile in the sky before the plane plummeted into the ocean.
Former presidential aide and journalist Pierre Salinger even went so far as to join a chorus of folks on the Internet who claimed a U.S. Navy ship had accidentally shot down the plane and the government was covering it up.
Yet the conspiracy theorists had no explanation for the fact that there was no missile damage on the wreckage or that no missile was ever found.
Every angle explored
With mounting physical evidence only telling them what it wasn't, air crash investigators were left to analyze the various ways a 747, after an uneventful takeoff on a clear summer night, could crash so horribly. The questions brought them back to the center fuel tank.
Boeing acknowledges there are times during a normal flight when a nearly empty fuel tank can be full of vapors heating to volatility. Safety features are designed to keep any source of heat or electricity from igniting this explosive brew.
Nevertheless, investigators began sorting through a list of things that might have gone wrong.
A static spark generated from a fuel leak in the center tank is the theory now receiving the most scrutiny. Lab tests will soon be conducted to see if electrostatics could have caused the blast.
An accidental crossing of high voltage wires with the low voltage wires in the fuel tank is also being considered as a possibility, as is faulty wiring in the plane's fuel pumps.
Each new theory causes more concern about the safety of the 747 in general.
"One of the things we learn from accidents is to change the aircraft to making them safer," said University of Southern California Professor Michael Barr. "We have a term for that. We call it blood priority. The blood priority is at work in every accident, not just TWA 800."
Even with the ongoing investigation, the NTSB issued urgent recommendations that the Federal Aviation Administration take immediate steps to reduce the risk of fuel tank explosions. The FAA called on airlines to immediately re-inspect the wiring on fuel pumps for signs of erosion.
The 747 is considered an aviation marvel. So few can imagine what kind of event could have destroyed TWA Flight 800 in an instant. And more importantly, why top investigators using the most sophisticated techniques can work for six months and move only inches closer to finding a cause.
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