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New TWA 800 data released before hearings

TWA reconstruction
The investigation included the painstaking process of reconstructing the plane   

4,000 pages of information released on Web, CD-ROM

December 8, 1997
Web posted at: 9:12 a.m. EST (1412 GMT)

BALTIMORE (CNN) -- Nearly a year and a half after the crash of TWA Flight 800, air safety officials Monday began five days of public hearings into the mysterious disaster that claimed the lives of all 230 people on board.

National Transportation Safety Board officials say the hearings are the latest step to clarify investigators' findings in the case; they stress that the investigation is not over. Last month, the FBI officially ended its probe into the crash, saying that there was no evidence that a criminal act brought down the plane.

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.

Related site:

TWA Flight 800 Public Hearing

On Sunday, more than 4,000 pages of information gathered by the NTSB was made public on a site on the World-Wide Web. The newly-released documents included some information which 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 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 the bulk of passengers -- 183 -- were killed instantly, the NTSB says.

  • 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.

So much information was generated by the hundreds of experiments conducted to test explosion theories that the NTSB created a special Web site to disseminate the data. All of the documents prepared for the hearing were also released Sunday on CD-ROM.

There are so many papers "it would take a moving van" to get them to the hearings, former NTSB Vice Chairman Susan Coughlin has said.

Hundreds of victims' families, journalists and lawyers are expected to file into the Baltimore Convention Center to listen and learn about the most expensive and extensive air crash probe ever. The NTSB's probe has already cost more than $27 million, and the investigation is expected to last well into next year.

The NTSB's material now can be made public because it is no longer considered potential criminal evidence. The material's status changed two weeks ago when the FBI announced it had found no evidence that a bomb or missile brought down the plane.

TWA Flight 800 was en route from New York to Paris when it exploded over Long Island Sound minutes after takeoff. Investigators believe the explosion began in the center fuel tank, but they say even if the exact cause of the crash is never pinpointed, what they have learned can make air travel safer.

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

"Two things are driving our investigation," NTSB Chairman James Hall said. "We want to know the ignition source on TWA Flight 800. Secondly, we want to know what steps need to be taken to prevent an accident like this from recurring in the future."

The findings will be detailed through a series of questions posed to panels of investigators by both NTSB technical experts and the board of inquiry headed by Hall.

The documents, videotapes and other evidence will help illustrate what the investigators believe happened to the plane. One animation will simulate how the plane came apart. Another, shot with a camera placed in a smaller-scale model of the 747 fuel tank, will simulate the tank explosion and fire.

The animated simulations are based on the best guesses of the aerodynamics experts and information about where pieces of the plane landed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Correspondent Gary Tuchman contributed to this report.


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