TWA 800: Remember the Missile Theory?

— Today is the fourth anniversary of one of the most mysterious, tragic and controversial air crashes in U.S. history — the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, which killed 230 passengers and crew.

It is also roughly a month before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is scheduled to announce the conclusions of its four-year investigation into the cause of the crash.

The government’s investigation of the TWA 800 crash, considered the largest and most expensive in commercial air disaster history, has been controversial from the start.

In the days following, nearly 100 of more than 700 eyewitnesses interviewed by the FBI described seeing a streak of light move from the Earth leading to an explosion, which seemed to suggest a missile had struck the Boeing 747.

Initially, law enforcement officials also strongly believed a criminal act — either a bomb or a missile — was the likeliest explanation for the catastrophic explosion, which severed the plane’s front end, including the cockpit, from the rest of the fuselage.

But now, government officials from the FBI, CIA and, privately, the NTSB, say they are fairly convinced no such thing occurred.

All that investigators will say they know for sure is that the plane’s center fuel tank blew up. To date, no single source of ignition for that explosion has been identified, although investigators say they have closed in on several possibilities.

So why have government officials dismissed the missile theory? How could so many eyewitnesses be wrong?

Largely because of the absence of any physical evidence supporting the theory and the unreliability of memory, current and former officials say.

But ABCNEWS.com’s examination of the main arguments and evidence used by various government agencies to dismiss the missile theory reveals a degree of conjecture, along with disagreements about key eyewitness accounts.

Compelling Eyewitness Accounts

The most compelling case for the missile theory is made by the 755 FBI records of eyewitness interviews, which were recorded on standardized FBI “FD-302” forms typically used by the bureau in court.

Recently posted on the Internet and given little notice by the press, the FBI records seem to tell a dramatic story of a missile striking the plane.

Ninety-six of the eyewitnesses — from boats, from the Long Island shore, and from a nearby jet and helicopter — described seeing a streak of light or what appeared to be a flare moving up from the Earth and eventually leading to an explosion over the Atlantic, according to the FBI reports.

One eyewitness, for instance, described “what he thought was a shooting star traveling west to east, coming form the south shore, over Fire Island,” an FBI agent wrote. The “object he observed was more like a bottle-rocket with a dull orange glow to it” and he “further stated that the glow moved faster than an aircraft.”

Yet another witness on Long Island’s south shore said she observed “what appeared to be a ‘contrail’ which appeared to be coming from an object which was flying toward the plane which she had been watching,” according to another FBI record. That eyewitness said she thought the object originated from somewhere on the ocean.

Some of the eyewitnesses in the days after the crash, lent weight to the missile theory by describing what they saw to TV news.

“It was a bright, reddish orange color. It appeared to be a flare going up,” witness Lou Desepoli told a news camera.

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