COMMENTARY: Still doubts about what caused TWA 800 disaster

On the evening of July 17, 1996, a TWA flight to Rome via Paris took off from JKF Airport. TWA 800 ended up in pieces in the Atlantic over Long Island a short time later, with all 230 aboard perishing.

The question of what caused the explosion which brought down this aircraft and made it the third-worst disaster in U.S. aviation history has not been adequately investigated, according to critics. Though not a conspiracy theorist by any means, I join the call for greater scrutiny of the evidence in this case.

Following the traumatic crash of Flight 800, a plethora of investigations followed. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded its inquiry in August 2000 by assigning blame for the explosion to the center wing fuel tank, though the source of fuel ignition was never identified.

The NTSB repeated that cause in its 10-year reflection of the incident. However, a July 2013 Epix Channel documentary, “TWA Flight 800,” accumulated much contradictory and damning evidence about how the NTSB and Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted the inquiry and what they found. Shortly thereafter, a group called the TWA Flight 800 Project requested a Petition for Reconsideration of the TWA Flight 800 findings, a request which the NTSB denied in July 2014.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Criticism of the NTSB’s conclusion about the TWA Flight 800’s fate focused on two areas. First, the finding that the center wing fuel tank rupture caused the disaster was challenged by those pointing to evidence of an external explosion.

Said evidence included witness testimony of missile-like entities going through the sky and intersecting the aircraft; external bombing traces like chemicals present and splatter patterns of the explosion; radar data; the pattern of the plane’s debris field; and random damage to passengers and seats.

Second, some current and previous NTSB employees who worked on the TWA Flight 800 investigation were highly critical of anomalies in the inquiry, including evidence which disappeared from the airline reconstruction site; not permitting any witnesses to testify in person at the NTSB hearings; delays in identifying victims; unprecedented tension between FBI and NTSB personnel during the investigation; and the involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency in producing an animation of what allegedly caused the destruction of TWA 800.

The ramifications of an external explosion must be considered.

One possible catalyst would be a terrorist attack; another could be an accidental discharge of military ordnance. Both of these possibilities were broached and quickly rejected by official investigators. When well-known Americans like former Kennedy administration press secretary Pierre Salinger dared to pose the possibility of a missile downing TWA 800, they were harshly — and unfairly — ridiculed.

There have been some positive developments emanating from this tragedy which occurred two decades ago. After being lambasted for lack of compassion toward victim families in the wake of the TWA 800 disaster, the Bill Clinton administration and Congress agreed on legislation which placed the NTSB in charge of services for victims’ families. In 2000 and 2005, the NTSB and FBI signed memoranda of understanding detailing protocol for cooperation in investigating travel incidents.

In 2008, the Department of Transportation issued regulations designed to prevent fuel-tank explosions on aircraft. At Smith Point County Park in Shirley, Long Island, New York, and Montoursville, Pennsylvania, monuments to victims of the disaster were erected.

Having been born and raised in the next town over from Montoursville, I shared a spiritual bond with the 16 Montoursville High School French Club students and five faculty chaperones aboard TWA 800 on their way to Paris whose lives were snuffed out along with 209 others.

During a long-planned 10th anniversary vacation at the Hamptons on Long Island, my wife and I saw emergency personnel still looking for evidence of the crash in the Atlantic. Later, when we traveled to a small town in Italy, we discovered that a resident from an adjoining town was one of the victims of the crash. Finally, Montoursville victims of TWA 800 are buried in the same cemetery as members of my family.

While fully cognizant that a request for additional study of evidence in the TWA 800 disaster may be repugnant to a few, nagging doubts about the cause of the explosion which downed TWA 800 20 years ago persist.

Any objective reading of the 24-page 2013 Petition for Reconsideration leads to the conclusion that the NTSB’s “probable cause” for the TWA 800 crash is highly questionable. A new investigation should permit direct witness testimony and protect whistleblowing employees at the CIA, NTSB, and FBI.

Any ensuing reopening of this unsolved airline disaster by the federal government must, more than anything else, reclaim the mantle of trust with the American people, which has been tainted by irregularities and uncertainties.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. He is a native of Williamsport, Pa.

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