TWA flight 800: Victims' families question petition to reopen probe of crash

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. Photo Credit: Newsday, 1999 / Dick Kraus

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Relatives of TWA Flight 800 victims are voicing dismay over over calls for another probe into the cause of the 1996 crash that killed all 230 onboard.

Former investigators are citing new evidence pointing to a missile strike.

The New York-to-Paris flight exploded in a fireball and plunged into the waters off Long Island on July 17, 1996, shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport.

John Seaman, the longtime leader of an organization of TWA 800 victims' families, noted there have been several attempts over the years to reopen the investigation.

"Unless something was to develop that would be very clear and compelling, then a lot of these interested parties are not really helpful," said Seaman, whose niece died on the flight. "They reopen wounds," he said of the petitioners. "Personally I can't keep going over it again and again."

The nine Hudson Valley passengers on board were:

• Nicolas Bluestone of Pound Ridge

• Marie Ellison of Mount Vernon

• Mario Percy of Hastings-on-Hudson

• Ruben Windmiller of New Rochelle

• Patricia Kwiat of Briarcliff Manor and her sister, Kimberly Kwiat

• and John and Janet O'Hara of Irvington and their daughter, Caitlin.

Also killed in the crash was Lois Van Epps of New York City who taught at Edgemont Junior and Senior High School in Scarsdale.

The petition to reopen the probe comes before the July release of a documentary -- "TWA Flight 800" -- that features testimony from former investigators who raise doubts about the National Transportation Safety Board's conclusion that the crash was caused by a center fuel tank explosion, probably caused by a spark from a short-circuit in the wiring. The documentary is scheduled to air in July on the 17th anniversary of the crash.

"We don't know who fired the missile," said Jim Speer, an accident investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association, one of those seeking a new review of the probe. "But we have a lot more confidence that it was a missile."

In a statement, the NTSB called the 4-year-long Flight 800 investigation among the "most detailed" in the agency's history. The accident report covered 400 pages and had 17,000 pages of supporting material.

The NTSB said that the probable-cause findings only could be reconsidered based on "the discovery of new evidence or on a showing that the board's findings are erroneous."

Those calling for a review of the investigation include former NTSB accident investigator Hank Hughes and Bob Young, a former senior accident investigator for the now-defunct TWA. Tom Stalcup, a physicist and co-founder of a group called Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization, also questions the NTSB's original findings and is featured prominently in the documentary.

The petition filed Wednesday contends that a review of "the FAA radar evidence along with new evidence not available to the NTSB during the official investigation" indicates that the NTSB probable cause finding "is erroneous and should be reconsidered."

The documentary includes several eyewitnesses describing an object streaking toward the jet before the explosion.

The NTSB said in a statement that it is always free to consider new evidence.

"While the NTSB rarely reinvestigates issues that have already been examined, our investigations are never closed and we can review any new information not previously considered by the board," the agency said in a statement.

Robert Francis, the former vice chairman of the NTSB who headed the investigation, declined to comment.

Former FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom, who headed the criminal probe after the crash, denied claims of a cover-up by the government, saying investigators "took very seriously the idea that a missile could have shot down the plane."

Speaking on CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper," Kallstrom said they "did an exhaustive investigation," recovering 97 percent of the airplane from the Atlantic Ocean.

"We used all the assets of the United States, all the missile experts in the military," he said. "So I'm very confident that we had enough of that airplane to make the judgment that no criminal intervention, to our knowledge, our knowledge at the time, our knowledge in 1996, wherever that science was, that did not bring down the aircraft."

The former investigators calling for a new probe say new evidence that a missile may have taken down the jet includes analysis of radar of the jetliner.

Speculation of a missile strike began almost immediately after the crash. Theories that an errant missile may have been fired from a U.S. military vessel were widely refuted, but conjecture about a shoulder-fired missile launched by terrorists in a small boat has never completely gone away.

The petitioners contend that the testimony of more than 200 witnesses who reported seeing streaks of light headed toward the plane should be reconsidered. The NTSB said after the first investigation that it found no evidence of a missile strike. It explained that what witnesses likely saw was the jetliner pitching upward in the first few moments after the explosion, but some witnesses still maintain that the streak of light they saw emanated from the waterline and zoomed upward toward the plane.

The petition filed with the NTSB to reopen the probe claims "new analyses of the FAA radar evidence demonstrate that the explosion that caused the crash did not result from a low-velocity fuel-air explosion as the NTSB has determined. Rather, it was caused by a detonation or high-velocity explosion."

The documentary was directed by Kristina Borjesson, a former producer for "CNN's NewStand" magazine show and "CBS Reports" documentaries.

The documentary airs on the EPIX premium television channel. An EPIX spokeswoman declined to say how much the filmmakers were paid for the documentary.

With The Associated Press

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