Systematic Risk Management Blog

In Light of FBI Failures, Reopen the Investigation of TWA Flight 800

Posted by Vernon Grose on Mon, Jul 8, 2013 @ 03:07 AM

The crash of TWA Flight 800 was one of the worst aviation disasters in American history, killing 230 people. As a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, I defended the government's investigation and official explanation of its cause for years. But I am now convinced that it's time the current NTSB make a courageous decision to reopen that investigation.

Let me explain why.

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Just 12 minutes after it took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Paris-bound TWA Flight 800, engulfed in flames, slammed into the waters off Long Island, N.Y., on July 17, 1996, killing everyone on board. Because I served on the NTSB board and am a risk management expert who specializes in aviation, I have been interviewed more than 170 times, perhaps more than anyone else, about the crash. At first, I was a staunch defender of the NTSB's conclusion that overheated gases in the plane’s near-empty, center-wing fuel tank caused the tank to explode.

But it's now clearer than ever that highly unusual and questionable behavior of the FBI, which led the investigation and refused to consider the testimony of eyewitnesses, warrant a reopening of the case.

TWA Flight 800 documentary

The investigation is getting renewed scrutiny due to "TWA FLIGHT 800," a provocative 90-minute documentary that will air on the EPIX network at 8 p.m. on July 17, the 17th anniversary of the crash. The documentary includes comments from me criticizing the FBI's actions.

I am convinced by the evidence that a missile – not the center wing tank explosion -- brought it down, but I haven’t resolved its source. Nor am I arguing that a widespread governmental conspiracy exists to keep truth from the American people.  But I support other aviation and explosion experts, including many who participated in the original TWA 800 investigation, in saying it’s time to take a fresh look at all the evidence, much of which was withheld by the FBI. 

In this trailer for the July 17 documentary "TWA Flight 800," I question (:54 to :56) the highly unusual actions of the FBI, which excluded eyewitnesses from its investigation. Its time to reopen the case.

I realize some family members of those who died in the crash say they don't want to rehash a painful national discussion of the details. I also realize some federal officials, in response to a petition by the documentary's creators and others, recently told reporters they stand by the official conclusion.

I do not. In light of new research -- including radar data that may corroborate the missile theory -- the official explanation of what caused TWA Flight 800 is questionable at best. What troubles me the most to this day is the way the FBI handled the investigation.

This is how TWA Flight 800 was reconstructed during a four-year investigation

Incredibly, the FBI denied and excluded any of the eyewitness accounts of the fiery crash, and there were more than 100 of them. This, in my view, raises serious questions about the FBI's motive, integrity and competence, and clouds the official findings. Until questions about the FBI's curious handling of the investigation are thoroughly examined and convincingly answered, what caused the crash of TWA Flight 800 will remain a mystery.

Let's reopen the investigation to answer these questions and find the truth.

Topics: NTSB, aircraft risk, TWA Flight 800