TWA 800: Remember the Missile Theory?

ByDavid Ruppe

N E W   Y O R K, July 17, 2000 -- — 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’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.

“If you take the time and read through [the witness reports], you’re gonna be a believer. I mean, a hundred people can’t be seeing this stuff without something being there,” says retired Navy Commander James Donaldson, who was a crash investigator for the service and is currently the most vocal critic of the government’s investigation and a strong advocate of the missile theory.

Donaldson has posted the FBI forms, obtained from the NTSB, on a Web site,

Terrorism Seemed Possible

In fact, immediately following the crash, the possibility that an act of terrorism had downed the jet seemed very real to the FBI, the bureau’s Legislative Council A. Robert Walsh later explained in a letter to a U.S. senator:

“[A]t the time of the TWA explosion, [convicted terrorist] Ramzi Yousef and others were on trial in the United States District Court in the Southern District of New York for plotting to blow up 12 United States airliners over the Pacific Ocean, all on the same day, as well as for charges connected with a test of their device on an airliner that resulted in the death of a Japanese national.”

The tragedy occurred just one week before the Olympic Games in Atlanta, and when Washington was still on a high state of alert following the April 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma.

In the hours and days immediately following the crash, hundreds of FBI agents fanned out across the Long Island’s south shore interviewing potential eyewitnesses.

Initially, “everyone thought this was an act of terrorism,” says then-FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom, who would lead the bureau’s investigation into the crash.

“I assigned 500 additional agents to look at the missile theory. We thought there was a likely chance it could have happened,” he said.

But as FBI and NTSB investigations progressed, federal agencies publicly began to discount the likelihood of a missile strike.

FBI Stops Investigation

Sixteen months after the crash, the FBI’s Kallstrom held a press conference to announce that the bureau was suspending its extensive criminal investigation, saying no evidence had been found to suggest the accident was due to a criminal act.

Kallstrom said the FBI exhaustively investigated one lead after another, and conducted forensic tests, with no results.

“If a bomb or a missile or a missile fragment or a concussion missile or a shape charge or a bomb in a suitcase, or any of those things happened, we would have seen forensic evidence of it, metallurgic evidence of it,” said Kallstrom, who now works in the private sector, in an interview with

The eyewitness testimony initially pointed the FBI in the direction of the missile theory, said Kallstrom.

“But the reality is, eyewitnesses seeing things in the sky does not make evidence. It can point you in directions. You can’t bring that kind of testimony into a court of law. In the final analysis, the evidence of what hit the plane is in the plane itself. And there was no evidence,” he said.

So the agency turned to a CIA analysis for a way to explain what the witnesses had seen.

CIA Challenges Theory

The CIA, at the FBI’s request, produced an analysis concluding it was improbable eyewitnesses saw a missile strike the plane.

The CIA argued that witnesses who described seeing a streak of light leading to an explosion instead probably saw the aircraft already on fire, suddenly climbing 3,000 feet from an altitude of 13,800, after the plane’s nose broke off. The sudden weight loss propelled the rest of burning plane abruptly upward, trailing flames, they concluded.

The streak that 98 eyewitnesses said they saw originate from the Earth actually started high in the air, the CIA said.

The CIA briefed the FBI on its final analysis in October 1997 and the FBI, at a press conference the following month, released a video produced by the CIA to explain its theory titled, TWA Flight 800: What Did the Witnesses See?

Parts of the video were broadcast widely on network TV news.

Doubts About CIA Analysis

But some critics charged the CIA analysis — an unusual endeavor for a commercial air disaster investigation — seemed curiously non-comprehensive.

The analysis, for instance, did not take into account all of the eyewitness testimony. It was produced as the FBI gradually fed the CIA just 244 of the 755 eyewitness accounts, a CIA official later acknowledged.

Also, CIA officials told an NTSB panel their theory about the crash was largely supported by the testimony of a single eyewitness to the crash, whose account appeared at odds with many others, but whom analysts had determined was highly reliable.

Moreover, that key witness’ testimony at first didn’t fully support the CIA’s theory, a CIA analyst told the panel. The witness at first told the FBI that the streak of light originated from the Earth. Only when interviewed for a third time did the eyewitness give the FBI an account that better matched the CIA theory — also based on radar, satellite, physical and other evidence — that the light had originated high in the sky.

The CIA’s theory drew some skepticism from the NTSB panel, called the Witness Group, during the briefing.

“My concern is that when all 755 statements are made available to the public, you and the public will see numerous statements that appear to be excellent witnesses that don’t agree with [the CIA’s key witness],” said Jim Walters, with the Air Line Pilots Association, according to an NTSB transcript of the briefing.

The CIA analyst responded that those witnesses who saw something ascend steeply and lead to an explosion that then split and fell to Earth were probably mistaken.

“[W]e are confident that even though they thought what they saw was something originating perhaps off the ocean’s surface, streaking up and hitting the plane, that in fact, what they really saw was a fire trail in the sky which culminated in the breakup of the plane.” he said.

The CIA “had all of the evidence that we thought were worthy of consideration,” says Kallstrom. “Those were the best witnesses, which had the best location. They had the best recall. They were articulate. They were people who we thought were not just making up stuff because they heard it on the radio.”

And Kallstrom notes the CIA’s analysis was derived from far more than the key witness to calculate what might have happened to the plane.

“[W]e gave them the product of 12 different radars of [a] satellite atomic clock, and [the satellite] saw the infrared explosion of the plane, so we could pinpoint that. We had all of the facts of the flight data recorder. We knew where all of the witnesses were. You know the speed of sound, the speed of light.”

The CIA analysis is “conjecture, based on a lot of evidence,” Kallstrom says.

NTSB Finds No Evidence of Strike

NTSB officials, to date, have not announced any official conclusions as to what caused the center fuel tank to explode. They are expected to do so in August.

But as their investigation come to an end, officials say none of the substantial evidence they have gathered showed any signs of a missile strike.

“In the case of TWA, with 96 percent plus of the plane recovered, with extensive testing done on the recovered wreckage, with all sorts of other physical evidence, there simply was nothing, there was not one iota of evidence, to indicate the plane was struck by a missile,” explains Peter Goelz, former NTSB managing director who served during the investigation.

Goelz says the absence of such evidence does not rule out a missile strike. But he says that absence, and a number of other factors, make it highly improbable.

“If you are going to blow up a plane, if you are going to shoot down a plane, you can’t do it without leaving physical traces. And those are the physical traces that we looked for. And they were simply not present, they were not there,” he says.

The eyewitness accounts remained under consideration in the NTSB investigation, Goelz says. But because of the Board’s experience with the fallibility of memories, particularly during times of excitement, they are not a primary one, he says.

“The witness interviews are one part of the investigative puzzle, but they’re not dispositive on their own. Unlike a criminal investigation, the NTSB’s primary reliance is on the physical evidence,” he said. “We look at the tin.”

Theory Not Discarded

The NTSB Witness Group — a section of the investigation composed of representatives from NTSB, FAA, TWA, Boeing, a pilot’s association and an aerospace union — has not wholly rejected the missile theory.

It noted, for instance, that 38 eyewitness accounts of a streak of light appearing to rise straight up from the Earth, or nearly so, and noted that those did not correspond with the calculated flight path of the crippled aircraft.

But the panel called the FBI witness statements — which according to FBI procedure were not direct quotes but paraphrased summaries — “poorly suited for purposes of an aircraft accident investigation.” It also concluded some FBI interviewers may have disclosed a bias towards the missile theory, asking questions that tacitly supported it, such as, “how long did the missile fly?”

Ultimately, the Witness Group concluded the cause of the plane crash could not be determined through the eyewitness accounts alone but in light of the whole body of evidence uncovered.

NTSB officials continue to say they’ve found no evidence of a missile attack in the wreckage of the aircraft — which, again, doesn’t necessarily eliminate the possibility — but it doesn’t support the theory either.

“At this stage, we know that the center fuel tank exploded. The question is, what ignited that?” said NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz in a June interview.

Other Possible Causes

The NTSB has been examining a number of other possible causes such as faulty wiring, a malfunctioning fuel pump, a possible spark of static electricity, and sulfur deposits in fuel.

An FAA official, though, told reporters last week that its own substantial investigation into fuel tank safety following the crash found the tanks to be safe from explosions. Still, to make the fuel tanks safer, the FAA has issued sweeping changes to commercial aircraft designs and maintenance procedures, including nearly 40 rules and directives.

A Washington Post story in June reporting the NTSB had test-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles in April, as part of its TWA 800 investigation, raised some speculation the board might after all be seriously considering the missile theory as it prepares to make its final report.

NTSB officials, however, seemed to suggest the test was something of a formality, more about covering all of the bases than finding new answers.

“The tests have been described as “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and that’s a good way of looking at it,” said NTSB spokesman Paul Schlamm.

With no physical evidence to substantiate the eyewitness accounts of a missile strike, NTSB officials say the theory is all but ruled out.

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