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Investigators confident missile didn't bring down Flight 800

June 7, 1997
Web posted at: 12:49 p.m. EDT (1649 GMT)
TWA theory graphic

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Nearly 11 months after TWA Flight 800 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, investigators believe they have an explanation for numerous eyewitness who claim they saw a missile in the sky that summer night.

Investigators cannot absolutely rule out the possibility that a missile exploded somewhere near the Boeing 747. But they have concluded it was the explosion of the jet's own fuel that brought down the plane July 17, killing all 230 people aboard, a source told CNN.

"The wreckage tells a story," said a federal official close to the investigation. "We have to do a lot of computational work to check it out.".

Investigators believe that while the Paris-bound jumbo jet climbed at 13,000 feet off the coast of Long Island, an explosion in its center fuel tank blew away a section of the plane's fuselage and broke the plane's keel beam -- a steel spine that runs the length of the plane.

At that point, a ring of the fuselage peeled away from the bottom, around to the top.

Moments later, the plane's nose broke off. Without the weight of the nose to hold it steady, the rest of the plane tilted upward but continued to fly with all four engines running, spewing a trail of flaming jet fuel.

series of graphics showing theory

From ten or more miles away at dusk, that trail could well have looked like a missile, the official told CNN. What appeared to be the explosion came next.

The enormous physical stresses on the plane after the nose fell off ruptured the large -- and full -- fuel tank in the plane's right wing, sending a huge burst of fuel into the sky. That fuel mixed with the air to become an explosive fuel vapor, causing the loud fire ball that witnesses reported.

"When the nose falls off, the right wing tank opens up, and the fuel meets the air," the official said. "That's when you get the big explosion."

Levine

The source said investigators developed this theory by putting together witness reports with aspects of the damage, such as heavy burn and explosion damage around the right wing fuel tank.

But some witnesses, including Naneen Levine, say they saw something streaking up, and not streaming down.

"I thought it was something on the beach going straight up," Levine said. "... The little red dot went up like this, sort of curved. It came to a point where I thought little fireworks were going to come down or just fade and be a flare."

 
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