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S P E C I A L TWA Flight 800: The Crash and Investigation

Public hearings on TWA 800 crash start Monday

Plane reconstruction
A large part of the investigation included the painstaking process of reconstructing the plane   
December 5, 1997
Web posted at: 10:14 a.m. EST (1514 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The explosion of TWA Flight 800 in July 1996 will be dissected in painstaking detail at a safety board hearing in Baltimore next week. But people still hoping to hear an exact cause for the July 1996 crash likely will be disappointed: No such announcement is planned.

There has been no precise answer as to what ignited the fuel and air fumes in the center fuel tank of the Boeing 747 that led to the explosion off New York's Long Island. All 230 people aboard were killed.

On Sunday the National Transportation Safety Board will issue the investigative docket, over 4,000 pages of data gathered by the federal agency and by U.S. and international research laboratories working under contract.

Starting Monday, panels of investigators will face questions from both NTSB technical experts and the board of inquiry headed by agency Chairman James Hall.

TWA Flight 800
CNN Interactive will make available the full NTSB report after it is released Sunday and webcast live the hearings next week.

The investigation has cost the NTSB more than $27 million so far, and is the most expensive, extensive air crash probe ever. About $6 million went to the Navy for recovering the wreckage from the ocean floor.

Despite the investment of effort, the NTSB says investigators still have months of work ahead of them.

Special Web site set up

Explosion of an old 747
Experiments like the explosion of this Boeing 747 in England generated data for the probe   

Nevertheless, hundreds of victims' families, journalists and lawyers will descend on Baltimore Convention Center for the most detailed data so far. Flight 800 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after takeoff from Kennedy International Airport.

Two of the more illustrative exhibits to be presented at the hearing are videotapes. One, shot with a camera placed in a smaller-scale model of the 747 fuel tank, shows what a tank explosion and fire look like. The second is an animated simulation of how the plane came apart.

Like a similar tape released by the FBI, the NTSB's simulation is based on the best guesses of aerodynamics experts and information about where pieces of the plane landed in the Atlantic.

Hundreds of experiments, like a test explosion of an old 747 in England, generated so much data that the NTSB has created a special Web site to disseminate it. Documents prepared for the hearing will be available on CD-ROM. There are so many that "it would take a moving van to get the papers up there" to the hearings, former NTSB Vice Chairman Susan Coughlin said.

Related site:
NTSB: TWA Flight 800 Public Hearing

FBI still influencing investigation

Plane seats
There is disagreement over red residue found on a few airplane seats   

While the FBI pulled out of the investigation two weeks ago, citing a lack of evidence to suggest that the crash had criminal roots, the agency remains in the picture.

It has succeeded in convincing the safety board not to allow testimony from crash eyewitnesses, nor to discuss the results of chemical tests of red residue found on a few of the plane's passenger seats.

Writer James Sanders stirred up controversy by obtaining scraps of the seat fabric, then writing in his book, "The Downing of TWA Flight 800," that he had had them analyzed and found that the residue was missile fuel. Missile fuel residue would support a discarded FBI theory that a missile may have shot down the airliner.

"There wasn't a reddish-orange residue from throughout the airplane," Sanders said. "It was in three rows. I had it analyzed."

The FBI says the residue is adhesive. In a letter, FBI Deputy Director James Kallstrom told the NTSB that charges may soon be brought against those responsible for the theft of the fabric from the hangar where the 747 was reassembled.

Although federal investigators still don't know exactly what caused the explosion, they hope what has been learned so far will show aviation experts how to prevent a similar accident.

Correspondent Christine Negroni and Reuters contributed to this report.


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