Current and former federal officials who played key roles in the investigation of one of the nation’s worst aviation disasters said Tuesday they stand by their conclusion that the explosion of TWA flight 800 was caused by overheated fuel tank vapors, and not a missile.
The unusual National Transportation Safety Board briefing on the explosion of the Boeing 747 off Long Island on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 people on board comes in response to a new documentary film set to air this month. The film says new evidence points to the often-discounted theory that a missile strike may have downed the jet.
The officials who spoke at the briefing dismissed allegations of a cover-up, saying that the evidence points strongly to the board’s conclusion that overheated gases in the plane’s near-empty fuel tank caused the tank to explode.
“We went to the ‘nth’ degree, and then some,” said Joseph Kolly, the current director of the board’s Office of Research and Engineering and the chief fire and explosives investigator on the flight 800 investigation.
But there have long been doubters. They include three former investigators who appear in the film. A petition was filed with the NTSB to reconsider reopening the probe. A board spokesman said they are considering it.
One of the former investigators, Hank Hughes, said the board “completely discounted” the accounts of more than 200 witnesses who say they saw a streak of light heading toward the plane before it broke apart.
Standing in the rain outside the NTSB briefing, Hughes also said the plane’s reconstructed fuselage — which reporters were allowed to view after the briefing — has holes consistent with what would be expected from missile shrapnel. Reporters weren’t able to see the holes, he said, because they were on the opposite side of the reconstructed plane, facing away from the board’s briefing area.
“As far as motivation, who did what and why, we didn’t get into that,” he said. “I don’t know.”
But officials at the briefing and other former NTSB investigators said an examination of witness statements showed that what people thought might be a missile was actually the trajectory of the plane after the fiery explosion.
Witnesses “legitimately saw flames coming down and everything else, and explosions, but it occurred after the initial center fuel tank explosion,” Tom Haueter, who recently retired as head of NTSB’s aviation office and was a senior investigator during the flight 800 investigation, said in an interview.