The L.A. Times: - Articles on TWA Flight 800

Mechanical Failure Is Likely in TWA Crash, Freeh Says

  • Aviation: In the FBI's strongest statement, the director says evidence is not moving 'in the direction of a terrorist attack' as the cause. The tragedy off Long Island killed 230.

        NEW YORK - In the FBI's strongest statement since TWA Flight 800 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean last summer, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said Sunday that mechanical failure and not terrorism was the likely cause of the crash that killed all 230 people on board.
        "I think that the evidence as we have developed it to date, and particularly the evidence we have not found, would lead the inquiry toward the conclusion that this was a catastropic mechanical failure," Freeh said.
        "...The evidence is certainly not moving in the direction of a terrorist attack," he added during an appearance on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press." "It is in fact moving in the other direction."
        Freeh's remarks seconded the opinion of the National Transportation Safety Board, which late last year reached the tentative conclusion that the Boeing 747 jumbo jet disintegrated because of an explosion, probably caused by static electricity or a spark in its center fuel tank.
        Sources close to the investigation stressed Sunday that Freeh's remarks were not based on any startling new findings.
        "What prompted his remarks was his appearance on television," one of them said. "There's absolutely no new information, no 'Eureka.'"
        What Freeh's comments reflect, they said, is a growing consensus, based on months of painstaking investigation, that because there is no evidence of a bomb or a missile, mechanical malfunction of some kind is the logical cause of the explosion that brought down the plane.
        Freeh's remarks also shift the burden of the investigation, once and for all, squarely onto the shoulders of the NTSB. The FBI has been pursuing the criminal aspects of the joint investigation—possible terrorism or sabotage—and Freeh's acknowledgement that neither apparently was involved leaves the NTSB clearly in charge of what has been, at times, an awkward partnership.
        As he has all along, NTSB Vice Chairman Robert Francis on Sunday minimized any differences between the two agencies.
        "This investigation has been, and continues to be, an unparalleled cooperative effort on the part of both agencies," Francis said in a prepared statement. "The FBI's leadership and expertise continues to be of extraordinary value to the investigation."

        Investigators say the plane had less than its full capacity of passengers when it took off from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport July 17 on the way to Paris. Its center fuel tank was almost emtpy—prompting the theory that fuel fumes and air in the tank could have mixed at just the right ratio to form a disastrously combustible mixture.
        But FBI and NTSB investigators have been unable to confirm the theory. Highly sophisticated tests are underway to try to prove the thesis beyond a reasonable doubt.
        Freeh stressed Sunday that neither agency can yet state definitively that the plane crashed because of a massive mechanical problem.
        "We have not made that conclusion," the FBI director said, "nor has the safety board, which is the agency responsible for the case.
        "We want to spend a little more time doing our evaluations. We have just done a top-to-bottom reevaluation with the safety board. We need to get a conclusion...
        "We have to get some closure as to this case... We're hopeful by the mid-to late summer we will be able to make some specific conclusions in conjunction with the safety board," Freeh added.
        The NTSB has tentative plans to hold public hearings into the crash in late summer or early fall.
        Freeh's comments were echoed Sunday by James K. Kallstrom, assistant director of the FBI in charge of the bureau's New York field office, which started conducting an extensive criminal investigation the night the plane crashed.
        "I believe it is less likely at this point that it was a bomb or a missile or a criminal act, but we can't say for sure," Kallstrom said on "News Forums," a local TV public affairs program.
        "We have looked at every hole, every rip, and we see no evidence of high explosive. We see no evidence of a piece of shrapnel from a missile or warhead going through the plane," Kallstrom said.
        Navy divers, commercial trawlers and salvage vessels have found 95% of the aircraft, in one of the largest underwater recoveries in the nation's history. Last week, it was announced that trawling would stop because investigators believe that all significant portions of the plane have been pulled from the ocean.
        Experts working in a huge hangar in Calverton, N.Y., near the crash site, have reassembled 92 feet of the middle of the plane in what NTSB officials say is the biggest reconstruction in the history of aviation accident inquiries.
        NTSB investigators and FBI agents are studying the midsections to be sure no holes exist characteristic of a missile strike. So far, none have been found.
        Kallstrom said efforts were underway to "explain every hole in the plane and light in the sky."
        "I want to leave no stone unturned, look at every possible way we can look at it and then reach a conclusion," he added.

        On the night the plane crashed, scores of witnesses have said they noted streaks of light in the sky that FBI agents initially believed could have been the signature of a missile. But these descriptions have not been confirmed by radar tapes and satellite data. Investigators say the witnesses might have seen part of the explosions that shattered the plane.
        A central thrust of the NTSB's inquiry has been finding the source of a spark that could have ignited the jet fuel in the almost-empty tank.
        Much of the attention has been focused on the 747's cross-feed manifold—a fuel line running through the center tank that connects the two other fuel tanks in the wings.
        One there is that the line's O-rings—which connect the segments of pipe that form the line—had become old and distorted. This, in turn, might have caused grounding problems that could have allowed static electricity travelling along the manifold to discharge into the tank, which apparently contained a highly volatile mixture of fuel vapor and air at a temperature conductive to ignition.
        Late last year, the NTSB recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration order urgent design changes in the center fuel tanks of hundreds of jetliners, including all 747's.

        The changes, aimed at precluding the buildup of volatile fuel-air mixtures at temperatures that would permit ignition, included adding insulation around heat-generating equipment, filling center tanks shortly before takeoff with fuel that has been kept cool, keeping tanks full enough to prevent substantial vapor buildup and installing sensing devices that would warn crews of dangerous fuel-tank temperatures.
        More recently, the NTSB convened a meeting of experts in the Calverton hangar and at a nearby hotel to study the properties of jet fuel. The experts were asked to try to determine under what conditions fuel mixed with oxygen would ignite.
        What emerged from the conference was the realization of just how complicated a problem the experts faced.
        The center fuel tank, where the explosion occured, was divided into several sections, an investigator explained to The Times. Within these seperate compartments, fuel and air can have different mixtures and different explosive potentials.
        Adding to the difficulty, fuel from both Athens and New York was pumped into the tank at different points during the plane's travels. Investigators said subtle differences exist between U.S. and European jet fuel, which further complicates the inquiry.
        During his TV interview, Freeh strongly denied that Flight 800 was struck by mistake by a U.s. military missile—a position that Pierre Salinger, President Kennedy's former press secretary, and other conspiracy theorists have advocated.
    Goldman reports from New York and Malnic from Los Angeles.

  • No Sabotage Evident as TWA Crash Probe Ebbs
    From Newsday
        Barring an unexpected discovery of new evidence, the FBI has decided to end its investigation of the crash of TWA Flight 800, concluding that there is no evidence that a bomb, missile or other form of sabotage brought down the plane off Long Island 16 months ago, sources say.
        The jet bound from New York to Paris exploded over the ocean July 17, 1996, killing all 230 people on board.
        The descision to drop the criminal phase of the investigation is tentatively scheduled to be announced at the FBI's New York headquarters Nov. 13, sources said. It comes after a final round of tests on the plane by independent metallurgical experts failed to reveal any evidence of bomb or missile damage on the jet's skin or inside the plane, the sources said.
        "There was just no stones left to be turned over," said one official, who asked not to be named. "They feel they have turned over every stone that could prove it was a criminal act without finding anything. It would be pointless and a waste of money to go on."
        The FBI descision to pull out of the investigation, unless new leads of a criminal act are discovered, leaves the National Transportation Safety Board to determine the cause of the crash. Though no conclusion has been reached, safety investigators have said for months that the explosion almost certainly was caused by a mechanical malfunction.
        The NTSB has said a spark in the jet's almost-empty center fuel tank may have touched off volatile fuel vapor. But there has been no conclusion about what caused the spark.
        The NTSB plans to hold hearings in Baltimore beginning Dec. 8, releasing the results of its investigation and hearing from witnesses, outside experts and staffers. Relatives of several crash victims said Sunday that they had expected the FBI's withdrawl from the investigation.

    Author of Flight 800 Tale Admits Hoax

        A man who used the Internet to accuse the Navy of shooting down TWA Flight 800 told CNN that his actions were "reckless and a mistake." Ian Goddard said he just wanted "to give the government a black eye by any means that looked opportune," according to CNN. "TWA 800 was just a vehicle for my larger agenda." In March, Goddard released a report on the Internet claiming that the government was covering up that a Navy missile brought down the plane in July 1996, killing all 230 people on board.

    FBI closes probe into TWA crash
    Agency says criminal act did not cause blast

    By Pat Millton
    Associated Press

        NEW YORK — After scrutinizing more than 1 million pieces of wreckage, conducting 7,000 interviews and spending up to $20 million, the FBI officially pulled out of the probe into TWA Flight 800 Tuesday, saying the explosion was not caused by a criminal act.
        Investigators also released a CIA video simulation of the jet's last minutes to back up their conclusion that what witnesses thought was a missile hitting the plane was actually burning, leaking fuel from the front part of the jet after it had already broken off.
        "We ran out of things to do," Assistant FBI Director James Kallstrom said at a news conference.
        "Following 16 months of unprecedented investigation ... we must now report that no evidence has been found which would indicated that a criminal act was the cause."
        The Associated Press reported Nov. 12 that the FBI had told families of the 230 victims that it would suspend the probe, turning the investigation over to the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB, which has hearings scheduled for next month, has indicated no probable cause will be declared until late 1998.
        TWA Flight 800 had just left Kennedy Airport for Paris on July 17, 1996, when its center fuel tank exploded, killing everyone aboard. It broke apart at 13,700 feet and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean 10 miles off Long Island.
        Kallstrom showed the video, with its vivid computer-generated recreation of the disaster, to explain why 244 eyewitnesses reported streaks of light that some thought were a missile.
        Investigators concluded that the witnesses actually saw the crippled plane itself, several seconds after the initial explosion.
        The sound of the blast reached them later, making them think they were watching the beginning of the disaster instead of its end, the FBI concluded.
        Kallstrom said the FBI asked weapons experts at the CIA to use radar, satellite and other data gathered during the investigation to make the video to explain what witnesses actually saw when the plane plunged into the ocean.
        Ninety-six percent of the wreckage was painstakingly recovered from the sea and reassembled in a Long Island hangar.
        Investigators looked at more than 1,400 places where the plane was torn and 259 areas of missing fuselage, and took more than 2,000 chemical swabbings, Kallstrom said.
        They searched the metal, fabric and wires for telltale signs of explosives, and tried to match up possible entry and exit holes that a missile would have made.
        FBI scientists shot missile warheads at scrapped jumbo jets in the Southwest desert to compare scarring to TWA 800's mangled body. Nothing matched.
        Aware that the long investigation fueled conspiracy theories and suspicion, Kallstrom bluntly rejected such conjecture.
        Asked about a speck of radar some thought was a missile, or forensic evidence that might have indicated a missile, Kallstrom responded: "Never was. Never will be."
        He also rejected suggestions that the investigation was too long.
        "We had to look at every dark crack," he said.
        Kallstrom attacked those who claimed that the military accidentally shot down the plane and that the government covered it up. He said the FBI identified all military assets within 200 miles.
        Families of the dead filed lawsuits last year blaming the airlines and Boeing, the 747's manufacturer, alleging mechanical malfunction.

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