The explosion of TWA Flight 800 in 1996 prompted a lot of speculation at the time about terrorism, and not irrationally, either. Libyan intelligence took part in the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988, for instance, and the Iranians were threatening retaliation after the USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air 655 by mistake the same year. Later, the TWA 800 flight appeared to fit within the context of al-Qaeda operations against the US, although no claim of responsibility was made for it as a terrorist attack. The NTSB eventually ruled that it was a defect in the fuel tank that sparked the explosion, a ruling that witnesses and families of victims have resisted ever since.
Now, a new documentary argues that the US covered up the real cause of the explosion — and his case is bolstered by a number of whistleblowers who worked in the original investigation:
TWA Flight 800 exploded in mid-air on July 17, 1996 about 11 minutes after taking off from New York’s JFK airport on its way to Paris. Though theories abounded as to what happened to the plane — from a bomb on the aircraft to it being struck by a missile or even a meteorite — the National Transportation Safety Board concluded after a four-year investigation that the probable cause of the crash was an accidental fuel tank explosion. The NTSB said it could not be sure what exactly ignited the blast, but “of the sources evaluated by the investigation, the most likely was a short circuit outside of the [fuel tank] that allowed excessive voltage to enter it through electrical wiring…”
But according to the new documentary, named TWA Flight 800 and premiering on Epix next month, six former members of the official crash investigation have stepped forward to refute the NTSB’s findings, saying the crash report was purposefully falsified, and to claim the investigation was “systematically undermined” by federal authorities.
“We didn’t find any part of the airplane that indicated a mechanical failure,” one of the whistleblowers says in a trailer for the film. The former officials allege the explosion came from outside the plane, though they don’t speculate any further on the original source.
Another of the whistleblowers, former senior accident investigator with the NTSB Hank Hughes, said in a preview of the documentary that FBI agents were spotted on surveillance cameras going through the hanger where the crash evidence was kept “in the wee hours of the morning… for purposes unknown.”
What does all this mean? Not even the whistleblowers want to jump to a conclusion; they just want the investigation re-opened, and the original investigation reviewed. The NTSB, for its part, says that if presented with enough evidence it will reopen the probe, but that they stand by the results of their four-year investigation. But with whistleblowers suddenly popping up all over the place in more recent contexts, it seems like open season on government efforts these days. Expect to see a lot more about TWA 800 aired all over again, especially given the number and expertise of the whistleblowers.
Still, I think a healthy skepticism is the order of the day here. A cover-up of the scale suggested by the whistleblowers would be, as the two ABC reporters note, one of the largest in American history, involving several agencies and scores of people. It’s not impossible, but it’s not likely, either.