Mechanical failure? Terrorism? Friendly fire? Meteorite? Seventeen years after the tragic incident, investigators have dredged up everything but the truth.
Flight from the truth: the enigmatic TWA 800 disaster investigation
by W. E. Gutman
On page 16, in its Sunday, October 18, 1998 editorial section, The New York Times ran a full page ad urging government agencies in bold banner headlines to “END THE COVER-UP” and asserting that “Two Missiles Brought Down TWA Flight 800.” The ad was sponsored by the Associated Retired Aviation Professionals, a group headed by Admiral Thomas H. Moorer (retired), Rear Admiral Mark Hill (retired), USAF Brigadier General Ben Partin (retired), USN Commander William Donaldson (retired) and three veteran military and civilian aviators, including the flight engineer who had flown on the inbound leg of TWA 800’s flight from Athens the day before the plane went down off the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996 as it proceeded toward Paris and killing 230 people on board.
The ad further affirmed that the FBI had interviewed 115 “credible eyewitnesses” who claimed to have seen an object believed to be a missile streak upwards toward the airliner and explode.
From the start, FBI investigators suspected it was foul play but refused to release eyewitness statements; and the National Transportation Safety Board refused to let a single eyewitness appear at the highly publicized final hearing on the cause of the tragedy. So why the secrecy? And why did the mainstream media go sheepishly along with this devious suppression of eyewitness testimony?
On the eve of the Atlanta Olympic Games, such revelations would have dampened the spirit of the event and severely impacted commercial interests. Looming presidential elections and a diplomatic deadlock in the Middle East further dictated that early conclusions by federal sleuths be modulated to resemble nebulous speculation. With mounting evidence all but eliminating mechanical failure as the cause of the crash, and no compelling incentive to divulge the facts, investigators may have opted to withhold their findings as long as possible or, if need be, to shelve the awful truth in the “national interest.”
The ill-fated TWA Boeing 747 was the 153rd aircraft to roll out of the production line in 1971. It had since crisscrossed the globe without serious incident. A tire blew up on takeoff in 1987. An oil leak forced an engine shutdown in 1988. Both flights reached their destinations uneventfully.
Its penultimate voyage was also problem-free. It landed in Athens on Wednesday, July 17 at 11:32 and took off for New York at 13:25. Data gleaned from black boxes revealed no anomalous conditions prior to the conflagration that felled it later that evening. Crew chatter, mostly routine post-take-off protocol, betrayed no anxiety, no sense of foreboding. Only a brief snapping sound was heard just before the fatal silence. It was the same odd “ping” picked up by the flight data recorders of two commercial aircraft destroyed in mid-flight — Pan Am 103, blown up when a Toshiba portable radio crammed with pentrite exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people; and a DC-10 operated by France’s now defunct feeder airline, UTA, which disintegrated at 33,000 feet over the African desert a year later, killing 171. The culprit: 300 grams of pentrite hidden in the cargo hold.
According to Tom Thurman, the FBI specialist who had investigated Pan Am 103, TWA 800 in all likelihood was also destroyed by an on-board explosive device — “a few hundred grams of pentrite, C4 or Semtex.” Odorless, easy to handle, these “smart” explosives can be triggered by altimetric or 24-hour timing devices. Thurman suspected that an explosive charge placed on the right side of the forward cargo hold, probably in a suitcase, tore the aircraft at the seam where wings join the fuselage.
While it took a scant four days to determine that UTA’s DC-10 had been felled by a bomb, ten months passed before the luggage in which it was concealed was identified. The telltale evidence was less than an inch in size. It took Thurman two years to determine how the booby-trapped Toshiba radio was placed on board Pan Am 103 — and by whom.
How could an explosive device have been spirited on board TWA 800? Speculations were rife:
- A “kamikaze” passenger might have concealed it in carry-on luggage. This hypothesis was quickly dismissed: the explosion did not occur in the passenger cabin.
- The bomb made its way into the cargo hold in Athens and the timing device set to trigger the explosion as the plane made its way to Paris, not New York. Farfetched.
- It was secreted on board in New York, where security had been characterized as “notoriously lax — if not downright inept.” A Varig Airlines (Brazil) executive likened security at JFK airport to Swiss cheese — “full of holes.”
- Baggage handlers could have conspired. French intelligence had apprehended three known Islamic extremists working at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
All airplane sabotage cases were solved — from the 1970 explosion of a Swissair Convair in Zurich, to the Boeing 747 that disintegrated over Lockerbie. Extremist states, in these cases Iran and Libya, were implicated. Preliminary investigations into the TWA 800 disaster did not discount sabotage and pointed to the Middle East where the United States was regarded as Public Enemy Number 1 by Islamic radicals.
The usual suspects
A prime and tempting suspect was Ramzi Youssef. Trained in Afghanistan, Youssef was the mastermind behind the plot to destroy US airliners over the Pacific. The plot was foiled.
Captured in Pakistan in 1995, Ramzi was extradited to the United States. Tried and convicted of engineering the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, he is now serving two life sentences. No evidence of complicity in the TWA 800 crash was ever found.
The United States had also been threatened by the Jamaa Islamya, the group responsible for the New York World Trade Center bombing. Now serving a life sentence at the Springfield, Missouri federal penitentiary, its spiritual leader, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind cleric who conspired to bomb the UN and flood tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey, had vowed to get even.
Another hot lead — a new and mysterious terrorist cell — is the Islamic Organization for Change. The group is responsible for attacks in Saudi Arabia, the first in Riyadh in 1995 in which five Americans died; the second in Dhahran, in June 1996 in which 19 were killed and hundreds wounded, all GIs. Israeli intelligence claimed the group was run from Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden had been granted asylum. Bin Laden had many friends in Pakistan’s intelligence community. He also had followers from Hamas, the radical Palestinian group that had a score to settle with the United States after it agreed to extradite their chief, Moussa Abu-Marzooq to Israel where he faced a life sentence.
These groups have one common trait. All are ultra-secret and highly fluid organizations with deep worldwide networks that are difficult if not impossible to infiltrate. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are allies. Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya had all professed a common hatred of the United States and Israel. Stoked by rekindled Islamic fervor and a collective anti-Western agenda, Algerian, Sudanese and Afghan terrorists had long been training in Iran.
Another suspect with known ties to America’s arch-enemy — Iran — is Hezbollah, the shadowy and homicidal phalanx responsible for multiple suicide bombings in Israel. Hezbollah never forgave the United States for its support of Israel following the Cana massacre in Lebanon in April 1996 in which more than 100 civilians were killed by Israeli artillery. Four years earlier, striking without warning, Hezbollah operatives had pulverized the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 civilians and injuring 242.
It is widely known that Iran trains and subsidizes global terrorist networks. A high-ranking French diplomat stationed in Central America told this writer on condition of anonymity: “I believe that terrorists downed TWA 800.” He rejected mechanical failure as the cause of the crash. “‘Catastrophic failure,’ like so-called ‘acts of God,’ is impossible to define, let alone challenge. It’s an obliging rationalization that serves the political needs of the moment. It will have to do for the time being.” The diplomat did not discount the possibility that that France, not the United States, was the prime target of this latest act of banditry.
“Up, up and away”
Enticing as they were, speculations about the “usual suspects” remained just that — theories without empirical evidence. Chasing after very tenuous leads would have been time consuming and involved lengthy, subtle and complex diplomacy. Americans needed answers, preferably unambiguous and categorical ones. So investigators reluctantly set their sights on a culprit less jarring than terrorism — “catastrophic mechanical failure.”
Asking that his identity be withheld, a veteran American Airlines captain told this writer in Miami that the TWA airliner “would have had to be stressed beyond the designed limits of structural endurance to break up in three pieces without the benefit of some colossal intervening dynamic, namely a detonation of some sort. A structural weakness would have been detected during routine maintenance and promptly repaired.” The pilot declined to speculate on the cause of detonation but suggested that mechanical failure “was psychologically and politically the least disturbing of all possible interpretations — but I don’t buy it.”
What remains is the nagging possibility that a missile, friendly or hostile, as several eyewitnesses reported, felled TWA’s Paris-bound jumbo jet. Fearing nationwide panic, then Secretary of State William Perry predictably dismissed the “theory” as “highly improbable.” Suspicions were never allayed and the “theory” has since taken a life of its own. The deliberate spurning by investigators of witnesses who swore seeing a “flare” or “rocket” light up the night sky seconds after TWA flight 800 exploded, split apart and plunged into the waters of Long Island’s south shore, continues to fuel speculations.
A Continental Airlines pilot interviewed by this writer in Houston in 1999 (I was on my way to Honduras at the time) was convinced that “a stray US Navy Cruise missile blew up the TWA [jet].” Characterizing the FBI, the FAA and the NTSB as “co-conspirators in a monumental cover up,” he alleged that “no serious pilot believes mechanical failure played the slightest role in that disaster.” An SAS pilot interviewed in New York a few weeks later concurred and scoffed at the “vapor-and-spark” hypothesis. “It’s more like smoke and mirrors,” he quipped.
We may never know the truth — not for an absence of evidence but in the name of “national security,” a catch-all alibi used by the United States to tell its biggest lies or shield its most errant deeds from public scrutiny. The inventory of deceit, falsifications and outright evasions from truth foisted by the US government on the American people is broad and tangled:
- Unwitting American civilians and low-ranking military personnel used as guinea pigs in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare experiments;
- Unsuspecting African Americans denied treatment after being infected with syphilis;
- Release by the US Medical Corps of micro-organisms in the New York City subway system to “see how rapidly they would spread”;
- The role of CIA-trained death squads in Latin America;
- The rate and ferocity with which radiation spread across the globe following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster;
- The magnitude of the Three Mile Island meltdown;
- The direct effects and long-term consequences of exposure to “Yellow Rain” and “Agent Orange” during the Vietnam War;
- The extent to which deadly fissionable material spread in the Atlantic in 1986 following the sinking of a Soviet sub 600 miles from Bermuda;
- The lies perpetrated to justify the invasion of Iraq, later of Afghanistan;
- The etiology of the Gulf War syndrome; and
- The recent revelations that Americans have been spied upon for years by their government — to name a few.
Is the case of the ill-fated TWA flight 800 destined to join America’s roster of deceptions? “Practical politics consists in ignoring facts,” said American journalist Henry Adams (1838-1918). Some facts, like meddlesome witnesses or vexing evidence are not only being ignored but continue to be buried in haste.
W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist, now retired. From 1994 to 2006 he was on assignment in Central America where he covered politics, the military, human rights and other socio-economic themes. He lives with his wife in southern California.