Why Congress Must Reopen the TWA 800 Investigation

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On July 2, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced that it would not reopen the investigation into the destruction of TWA 800.  This was the Boeing 747 that was blown out of the sky ten miles south of the Long Island coast on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 people on board.

The TWA 800 Project, a team of former aviation investigators and scientists, had petitioned the NTSB to examine evidence that pointed toward a missile strike on the airline.  Not surprisingly, the NTSB, which had invested four years of resources to prove some other theory, any other theory, chose to stick to its original findings that flammable fuel/air vapors somehow caused the explosion.

Books have been written on this subject – I co-authored one of them with James Sanders, First Strike – so readers can access the body of evidence for a missile strike on their own.  An excellent point of entry is the documentary produced last year by the TWA 800 Project, simply called TWA Flight 800 and now available via streaming on Netflix.

One of the six whistleblowers profiled in that documentary deserves special attention.  His name is Hank Hughes.  At the time of the explosion, he was a senior accident investigator for the NTSB and was a member of the “Go-Team” that headed immediately to the crash site.

Hughes was responsible for determining whether or not any proposed scenario for the cause of the crash was consistent with the damage to the airplane interior.  So disturbed was Hughes by what he calls an “egregiously conducted investigation” that he attached a detailed affidavit to the TWA 800 Project’s petition to re-open the investigation.  What follows is a summary of that affidavit.

As Hughes points out, Title 49 of the U.S. Code gives the NTSB full authority to investigate all commercial airplane crashes.  That did not happen with TWA 800.  The FBI was “immediately and overwhelmingly present” at the site and quickly took control of the investigation.  Initially, the agency did so, says Hughes, “under the presumption that a criminal act had occurred.”  Even in these circumstances, however, the FBI had no lawful authority over the NTSB.  Indifferent to the law, the FBI seized control, and the NTSB leadership yielded without protest.

As it happened, the FBI agents had so little experience in aviation disasters that Hughes had to give them a tutorial on evidence handling.  By that time, however, much of the damage had already been done.  Unlike the NTSB, which records interviews, FBI agents simply take notes.  As a result, the interviews the agents conducted with the hundreds of eyewitnesses were “neither thorough nor reliable.”  That notwithstanding, the FBI would not allow the NTSB to talk to the witnesses for months, and only then under strained circumstances.

Despite its collective lack of know-how, the FBI also kept NTSB investigators away from various pieces of wreckage.  FBI agents made a practice, in fact, of screening physical evidence before NTSB investigators could see it and “withheld wreckage with suspicious damage patterns for unknown periods of time.”  In some instances, the FBI took evidence from the reconstruction hangar in Calverton, NY without allowing the NTSB to see it or analyze it.  “These prohibitions were tantamount to undermining a federal investigation,” says Hughes, “and violated NTSB standard operating procedures and regulations.”

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