Seventeen years ago, a Paris-bound TWA flight with 230 people on board exploded in mid-air in full view of New York City residents. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) opened its doors on Tuesday to the press for a refresher course on what happened on that summer evening.
EPIX, a neophyte cable channel hungry for some fresh content, will mark the July 17 anniversary of the crash by airing a documentary created by former NTSB investigator Hank Hughes and independent investigator Tom Stalcup that claims that a missile brought the fated flight down. The pair filed a petition urging the NTSB to reopen the matter in June. The NTSB has 90 days to respond, according to spokeswoman Kelly Nantel.
Investigators from six countries, 19 federal agencies, two aviation companies and two labor unions retrieved 5,000 pieces of evidence from the Atlantic. Two agencies, the National Transportation Safety Board and FBI, conducted exhaustive investigations into the cause of the crash of Flight 800, as well as possible terrorism. The FBI ruled out terrorism in 1997.
Three years later the NTSB revealed in a 400-page report that the crash was likely caused by a short circuit that ignited fuel vapors in the center wing tank, which delivers excess heat from air conditioning units out of the plane. The explosion, which occurred 11 minutes into the flight, separated the nose of the plane from the cabin, lifting it into the air before bursting into flames and nose-diving into the ocean.
Joseph M. Kolly, director of the NTSB Research and Engineering division, delivered a PowerPoint presentation outlining the contents of the report, as well as several rebuttals to Hughes and Stalcup’s claims.
The NTSB spent four years considering possible suspects in the case, everything from missiles to meteors to lightning to electric pulse.
“Did you think you’d still be doing this today?” a reporter asked.
“No, no I didn’t,” Kolly said. “There is no evidence of high energy penetration [missile strike] … it’s very clear to us that this was a central wing tank explosion and not anything else.”
Kolly was cool and methodical as he paced the auditorium and delivered the familiar facts of the case. His colleague, NTSB senior aviation safety investigator Bob Swaim, was a bit more fiery as he refuted claims about explosive residue found on several pieces of wreckage—contaminated by FBI and military personnel during the recovery process—and explained electrical components to a room full of communications degrees.
NTSB staff then led reporters down to the hangar to see what was left of the plane.
Jim Hurb, a 67-year-old mechanic from rural Maryland, approached the plane slowly with Matthew Ziemkiewicz at his side. Hurb’s son, Jamie, 29, was taking a vacation to Paris, and he was assisted onto the flight by a young stewardess named Jill Ziemkiewicz.
“It’s just evident to me that this explosion happened internally; it’s pure physics,” Hurb said.
“The NTSB has been exceptional to family members and I’m here today to show them support,” Ziemkiewicz said. “We have to close the curtain on all of this [conspiracy] nonsense.
The pair wanted to see the wreckage up close, eyeing a gaping hole just behind the right wing’s emergency exit. Just behind the twisted, wretched metal stood the frame of a seat. They exited the hangar shortly afterward.
“Hey, Bob thanks for ruining your afternoon to talk about the Internet’s oldest conspiracy theory,” a veteran scribe told Swaim. “It’s like refighting the Korean War.”
There were no Truthers or tinfoil hats in the NTSB parking lot, just a respectable-looking physicist and a pensioner holding court before some reporters, guided along by Ira Arlook of major liberal PR firm Fenton Communications. When Fenton is not busy representing radical environmentalist and gay groups, MoveOn.org, and the AFL-CIO, it is evidently peddling conspiracy theories.
“We’re investigating the accident, not ascribing motives. This isn’t a conspiracy theory,” Hughes said. “This is a matter of integrity; it is my obligation to the American people and the 230 people who lost their lives to bring out the truth.”
The truth, he said, was that a missile detonated just outside the left wing of the plane. The federal government covered it up. Hughes has known that since 1997, though that did not stop him from continuing to work for the NTSB until 2010. He is now using his federal pension to finance the documentary.
While Hughes was on the ground investigating, Tom Stalcup was getting a Ph.D in physics from Florida State University. Stalcup also insists that this is not a conspiracy theory. Just look at the evidence.
The NTSB report only looked at one type of missile explosion; the body of the plane never ascended; the radar data shows a high velocity explosion even if it didn’t show any naval battleships in the area.
“So why’d you get involved,” I asked him.
“Well when I saw the CIA was involved …” he said.
An energetic woman stood behind blurting out “they didn’t show you the left side of the plane!” to another reporter. Her name is Kristina Borjesson and she’s the documentarian of the group, an Emmy award winning reporter pre-Flight 800. She lost her job at CBS and later had a pilot she was working on with Oliver Stone cancelled by ABC because of her dogged pursuit of the story.
“Strange things started happening; my car was broken into, my computer was stolen,” she said. “The FBI came to CBS and demanded a piece of evidence that they said was stolen. It wasn’t stolen; it was given to me by a source who got it from someone at the scene.”
Stalcup was lecturing a reporter to my right about other odd happenings in the aftermath of Flight 800: “the hangars [where they assembled the wreckage] were being broken into at wee hours of the night. Evidence was stolen.”
The crux of the NTSB presentation was a recreation that showed a model of the explosion. A spark with one-tenth the power of a static shock set the miniaturized central tank ablaze, blowing out the front of the model in less than a second. Then a message popped up: WARNING: you are now running on reserve power.
“We have a second animation in slow motion,” Kolly said.
Nantel clicked to the next slide. Then the screen went blue.
A dozen thoughts rushed to my head: It’s suspect that we couldn’t observe this alleged sequence in slow motion; it’s convenient that the computer died at that exact moment; it’s odd that the NTSB would go to all this trouble, drag all these journalists down to here to discuss fatal electrical short circuits and not take precautions against electrical problems.
But then, sometimes you just forget to bring a plug. A staffer retrieved one. The slideshow came back on. And I watched an explosion in slow motion.