It’s been 17 years since Trans World Airlines Flight 800 (TWA 800) exploded after taking off from New York’s JFK airport, killing all 230 people on board, and 13 years since the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its final report on the incident, concluding a fuel tank explosion was caused by an electrical spark.
But old theories that the 747 jet was attacked are getting renewed attention, thanks to a new documentary in which six former investigators allege a missile brought down the plane.
There’s no way to know yet if the documentary, set to air on EPIX on July 17 — the 17th anniversary of the explosion — will present evidence that convincingly overrides the NTSB’s conclusion.
But one thing is already clear: Old theories about TWA 800 die hard, and we’re not ready to stop talking about it.
1. Witnesses saw what seemed like a missile: The NTSB report notes that 258 people reported seeing a “streak of light” near the plane, moments before a larger explosion. (The jet crashed near shore, so was visible to many.) The Safety Board concluded that streak of light was burning fuel that left the plane just before the plane came completely apart.
2. The FBI found trace amounts of explosives on three pieces of the wreckage: This seemed like sure evidence that the plane was hit by a bomb or missile, but investigators found no other evidence to corroborate those theories.
Because the FAA found that such traces would dissipate after two days of immersion in sea water (most of the plane was recovered after more than 48 hours), the NTSB decided the explosive evidence “could have been transferred from the surfaces of the ships or ground vehicles, or from clothing and boots of military personnel, onto wreckage pieces during the recovery operation.”
3. The cause of the explosion was never 100% resolved: The NTSB’s final report stated, “the probable cause of the TWA flight 800 accident was an explosion of the centre wing fuel tank.” Using the world “probable” leaves the door open to other theories.
4. Explosions are an unusual cause of plane crashes: In aircraft accidents, there’s a short list of common culprits, including bad weather, overworked or under-trained crew members, bird strikes, and ice on the wings. None of these were a factor in TWA 800, which made the whole thing more intriguing.
5. The investigation itself was fascinating:
Investigators went to great lengths to figure out what happened, and the CIA, FBI, and Naval Air Warfare centre all got involved.They leased a 747 to recreate the conditions of the flight. They detonated explosives in another. They fired missiles to determine if nearby witnesses could see them (a resounding yes). All that made the case more interesting to follow, and harder to forget.
6. It took years to issue the final report: The TWA investigation was concluded four years after the crash. That’s a long time without an official opinion on the crash, more than enough for conspiracy theories to incubate.
7. Not everyone agreed with the final report: Dissent came from knowledgeable parties, not crackpots. The new EPIX documentary on the plane’s demise stars six former investigators.
The International Associate of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), which participated in the investigation, argued that the explosion of the centre wing tank was a result, not the cause, of the plane’s disintegration.
Retired Navy officer William Donaldson submitted a report to Congress in 1998, alleging that Flight 800 was hit by two missiles.
Award-winning investigative reporter Peter Lance wrote in his 2005 book “Cover Up: What the Government is Still Hiding About the War on Terror” that the plane was blown up to disrupt the trial of Ramzi Yousef, who bombed the World Trade centre in 1993.
Still A Hot Topic
Because commercial plane crashes are both rare and spectacular, they are inevitably major stories. Interest in TWA 800 has waxed and waned of the past 17 years, but it does not take much to get people talking again. With a new documentary full of controversial ideas set to debut in a few weeks, attention is likely to hit a fever pitch very soon.
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