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Editorial: Flight 800 riddles don't warrant new probe

A new documentary about TWA Flight 800 is

A new documentary about TWA Flight 800 is challenging the official account of what caused the flight's crash and has revived old questions about the disaster that took 230 lives. Credit: Janet Hamlin

When TWA Flight 800 exploded 17 years ago this month, raining flaming debris into the ocean just off Long Island, the South Shore became the stage for a tragic mystery that still gnaws after all these years.

Unanswered questions and unsatisfying answers about the explosion persist like an itch that hasn't been sufficiently scratched. And now a new documentary challenging the official account has revived old questions about the disaster that took 230 lives.

"TWA Flight 800," which premiered last week, presents eyewitness accounts and physical evidence that led some investigators who participated in the probe and appear in the documentary to believe that the aircraft may have been brought down by missiles.

In response, federal officials have again rejected that conclusion. After a four-year investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board found in a 400-page report that the in-flight breakup was caused by an explosion in the plane's center-wing fuel tank. But the source of the spark that caused the explosion was never determined with certainty.

Immediately after the New York City-to-Paris flight went down on July 17, 1996, federal officials said they considered the possibility of a missile strike. But that suspicion has persisted among the public because more than 100 eyewitnesses reported seeing white or shiny objects streaking toward the plane just before it broke into two fireballs and plunged into the ocean off Center Moriches.

NTSB officials said they are reviewing a petition for reconsideration of the findings and probable cause of the crash. A new probe is warranted if any credible, fresh evidence comes forward. Anyone holding back information that investigators didn't consider before has a moral obligation to step up now. Relatives of the dead, some of whom gathered on last week's anniversary at a memorial in Shirley, deserve to know all there is to know about what happened.

The documentary -- written and directed by journalist Kristina Borjesson and coproduced with physicist Tom Stalcup -- is sober and engaging. They stayed away from speculation, such as the theory that the U.S. military may have been test-firing missiles in the area. The former members of the official crash probe in the documentary seem knowledgeable, and the questions they raise are provocative.

For instance, a former NTSB investigator said radar tracking Flight 800 showed large pieces of debris hurtling away from the aircraft at four times the speed of sound just after the explosion, but a fuel tank explosion couldn't drive debris beyond the speed of sound.

They observed that explosives residue was found on some of the debris. The FAA explained it was likely there due to a dog training exercise conducted on the plane a month before the crash. Investigators said in the documentary that if the center fuel tank exploded, the seats and victims near the center of the plane should have been the most severely burned. Rather than finding that expected pattern, they said the severity of the burns was random.

But there has been no evidence of missiles, either on radar or in the debris that was sifted to reconstruct the plane in a hangar at Calverton.

The film doesn't present any startling new evidence that would justify revisiting the exhaustive probe. Some questions may be unanswerable. And some conspiracy theorists will never be satisfied with any official account. Still, the film is a valuable endeavor. The portion of the TWA 800 wreckage reconstructed during the probe now resides at the NTSB training center in Ashburn, Va., where it is used for training. The rest of the wreckage was turned over to a salvage company after the investigation was completed.

Nagging suspicions about what caused the deadly disaster that riveted Long Island so many years ago have proved a lot harder to lay to rest.