Ex-TWA Flight 800 investigators seek new probe

A tractor moves the reconstructed wreckage of TWA

A tractor moves the reconstructed wreckage of TWA Flight 800 from the hangar where it was pieced together, to another hangar at the old Grumman plant in Calverton. (Credit: Newsday, 1999 / Dick Kraus)

Investigators who worked on the inquiry of TWA Flight 800, which exploded off the South Shore of Long Island 17 years ago and killed 230 people, said they have petitioned the federal government to reopen the investigation based on "new evidence" presented in a documentary film.

The investigators said evidence shows it's possible a missile brought down the plane.

But that contention drew criticism from the retired head of the FBI's New York office, James Kallstrom, who helped oversee the investigation. He said most of the new claims were actually recycled and discredited ideas raised soon after the July 1996 crash.

"It's foolishness. . . . It's crazy," he said. "If people said the moon was made out of green cheese," he asked, would the media take it seriously?

Kallstrom said some critics, with little experience in such investigations, have being making similar claims for years.

The investigators held a conference call with reporters Wednesday and announced they had officially filed the petition for reconsideration with the NTSB. The agency, which said it had not received the petition Wednesday,, conducted the official investigation of the July 17, 1996, crash and ruled out a missile or bomb as the cause.

But the investigators said the NTSB and the FBI ignored their concerns at the time, and one NTSB employee said he feared losing his job if he spoke up.

The investigators said they broke their silence about mistakes made in the original inquiry because they were motivated by getting to the truth of what really happened to Flight 800.

"New evidence has been brought to light correcting errors in the original investigation," said Hank Hughes, a former senior accident investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, who is featured in the documentary.

Hughes called the original NTSB investigation, which determined that a spark in the jet's center fuel tank ignited fuel vapors, "haphazard at best."

Jim Speer, with the Airline Pilots Association, who sifted through recovered debris and physical evidence in a Calverton hangar, and Bob Young, a senior accident investigator with TWA, who at the time of the crash was a top airline official, also were cited in the documentary. The film was backed by Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization, which has long been critical of the investigation.

Hundreds of witnesses reported seeing something streaking toward the doomed Boeing 747 before it exploded off East Moriches, which has fueled conspiracy theories that a missile downed the Paris-bound aircraft minutes after it departed Kennedy Airport. The filmmakers contend these reports were ignored.

Kallstrom said Wednesday that the bureau came to its conclusions after investigations and the plane's reconstruction in a hangar at the old Grumman plant in Calverton. The jetliner was recovered in pieces by divers.

He said the FBI had a number of experts examine the radar track, and they could find no evidence of an explosion caused by a missile, as the critics say.

As to the number of eyewitnesses who said they saw a missile strike the plane, Kallstrom said, "We took that very seriously."

"I had a hundred agents" investigating that alone, he said.

Kallstrom said many of the eyewitnesses saw flames shooting out in the sky and then heard a blast, so they assumed that they saw some sort of missile and then an explosion.

But Kallstrom said after the plane exploded its flaming pieces traveled 3,500 feet higher into the sky and because of the different speeds of light and sound there was a 45-second lapse between the visible flames and the sound of the blast.

An NTSB spokeswoman said new evidence or proof of errors is needed to reconsider findings of an investigation.

Findings the investigators say support their petition for reconsideration by the NTSB included radar data from the night of the crash that the filmmakers claim shows "high-velocity debris" blasting from the right side of the jet, which could have been remnants of a missile.

Official NTSB and FBI reports cited about 200 witnesses who reported seeing something moving upward toward the jet. Hughes said the actual number was about 700 people.

Some relatives of victims were unimpressed by the claims.

"We have not changed our minds from what the FBI the CIA and everybody else has said was the cause of the crash," said Larry Siebert of Fort Myers Beach, Fla., speaking about himself and wife Helen. Their daughters, Chrisha and Brenna, perished in the crash.

But others said the revelation confirmed their thoughts.

"I contended that all along since 1996," said Donald Nibert of Montoursville, Pa., whose daughter, Cheryl, was killed in the crash. "I thought there's been a cover-up."

Peter Goelz, who is now retired but was director of governmental and media relations for the NTSB at the time of the TWA explosion, said of his former investigative colleagues in an interview Wednesday night, "I find it very sad. I know all these guys. . . . I think of the four-year effort one of the finest in the the NTSB's history. . . . They are looking for their 15 minutes of fame."

Kallstrom criticized the investigators who came forward years after the investigation. "If they were so committed . . . why did they wait until they retired?" Kallstrom asked.

The film is to air on the Epix cable channel July 17, the 17th anniversary of the crash. It also will be screened July 20 at 3 p.m. at the Stony Brook Film Festival.

With Zachary R. Dowdy

and Robert E. Kessler

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