Transportation Safety Panel Asked to Look Again at 1996 Plane Crash

Former investigators say they were silenced about the real cause of the disaster.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday it is being petitioned to reactivate its investigation into the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, which disintegrated shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, killing all 230 on board. The request for a new probe came from former investigators who now claim they were silenced about the real cause of the disaster and that the official findings released by the government were "falsified."

A documentary spelling out their assertions that the jetliner went down after one or more ordnance explosions occurred outside the aircraft and not as a result of an accidental fuel-tank explosion is set to be televised on the EPIX channel on July 17, the 17th anniversary of the crash.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman, who appeared Wednesday at an unrelated Senate hearing on rail safety, declined to discuss details of the petition with reporters and would not say whether she has yet seen the documentary. "The NTSB has received the petition for reconsideration today," confirmed a board spokesman, Kelly Nantel, in a statement. She added that all petitions for reconsideration are "thoroughly reviewed and a determination is usually made within about 60 days."

Under NTSB regulations, a petition for reconsideration of board findings "must be based on the discovery of NEW evidence or on a showing that the board's findings are erroneous," Nantel added.

The NTSB's four-year investigation had officially concluded that the plane, a Boeing 747, plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island after vapors in a center fuel tank exploded, possibly ignited by a spark from a short circuit. No one aboard survived. The crash occurred just 12 minutes after the TWA flight took off for Paris.

Skeptics—including crash experts and retired military brass—have for years suggested other possible causes for the unthinkable tragedy. The theories have ranged from a meteorite striking the airliner to a missile or rocket exploding just outside the forward cabin, either from a terrorist attack or a U.S. military error.

Several witnesses to the disaster -- including one flying an Air National Guard helicopter on maneuvers nearby when the explosion occurred -- described seeing a streak of light or what looked like a missile contrail rising upward in the sky moments before the plane exploded. Some retired officers speculated a missile could have come from either a submarine or a buoy device developed by the Navy years ago to float attack missiles into position for launch from miles away.

Final readings from the flight recorder showed chaos in the sky, with the plane's airspeed dropping instantly by almost 200 knots, its pitch angle increasing by 5 degrees, its altitude dropping 3,600 feet in about three seconds, the roll angle going from zero to 144 degrees (the plane almost inverted), and the magnetic heading changing from 82 degrees to 163 degrees.

Many of the skeptics have been dismissed over the years as conspiracy theorists. One of the most noteworthy skeptics was Pierre Salinger, a former press secretary to President Kennedy and a reporter for ABC News who died in 2004. Salinger's obituary in The New York Times includes the recollection that he "had claimed to have seen secret documents showing that 'friendly fire' from a United States Navy ship was responsible for the downing of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 off Long Island in 1996.

"The claims were widely publicized and immediately disputed by federal authorities. The document turned out to be an Internet posting that had been long discredited by the Federal Bureau of Investigation," the obituary states.

Still, debate over the official report on the disaster has continued to rage. And now, six participants in the original investigation are coming forward in the documentary to "break their silence," say the film's producers in a statement.

"They waited until after retirement to reveal how the official conclusion by the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) was falsified," the statements explains. "These investigators were not allowed to speak to the public or refute any comments made by their superiors and/or NTSB and FBI officials about their work at the time of the official investigation."

The statement goes on to say that the team of investigators "who actually handled the wreckage and victims' bodies" will prove that a fuel-tank explosion did not cause the crash. They do not speculate about the source or sources of the ordnance explosions, the producers say.

But using firsthand sources and corroborating eyewitnesses who don't know each other, the statement says "they also provide radar and forensic evidence proving that one or more ordnance explosions outside the aircraft caused the crash." Based on this information and finding, the investigators -- along with eyewitnesses and some family members of those who died in the crash -- are asking the NTSB to reopen the investigation, the statement says.

In her statement acknowledging receipt of the petition, NTSB spokesman Nantel noted while the safety board rarely does new investigations on issues that have already been examined, its investigations are never closed, "and we can review any new information not previously considered by the Board."

But she also noted, "The NTSB conducts very thorough and methodical investigations."

"The TWA Flight 800 investigation lasted four years and remains one of the NTSB's most detailed investigations," she said. "Investigators took great care reviewing, documenting, and analyzing facts and data and held a five-day hearing to gather additional facts before determining the probable cause of the accident during a two-day Board meeting."

She said the NTSB's Office of Aviation Safety will assign as many staffers as possible to evaluate and prepare a response to the petition -- and only those who did not work on the original investigation -- and that a report will be presented to the board for consideration.

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