Questions still haunt Flight 800

Monday, July 17, marks the 27th anniversary of the explosion and crash of World Airways Flight 800, a Boeing 747-100 series wide-body airliner with 230 passengers and crew on board. They all died on July 17, 1996, when an explosion caused the Paris-bound plane, which was nine miles southeast of Morec on the south shore of Long Island, to disintegrate and fall to the ocean’s surface, at a depth of approximately 13,700 feet.

She reported the incident and investigation initially for Fairfield County Weekly and Westchester County Weekly, and later for The Village Voice.

Shortly after the accident, reports began to emerge of a streak of light seen streaking across the evening sky before a violent explosion occurred. It was about 8:30 pm, just after sunset on a beautiful summer evening. The weather was calm. A theory surfaced: 747 was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile, accidentally launched by a US Navy ship.
The investigation was conducted by the NTSB and the FBI in an uneasy partnership. The FBI insisted on interviewing eyewitnesses—usually part of any NTSB investigation—and chose to announce at a press conference that it had found no evidence of a bomb or missile. However, the bureau pressured the NTSB not to examine any eyewitness accounts at the inquest hearing, a month later in December 1997, for example. During the week-long hearing, NTSB President Jim Hall asked an NTSB staffer about the radar trajectory of a ship moving at 30 knots below TWA 800 when it exploded. The 30-knot trajectory, along with three other radar tracks consistent with the speed of a surface ship, all close to the flight path of the stricken plane as it passed over it, is one of the enduring mysteries of the collision. All four vessels remain publicly unidentified.
In August 2000, the investigation concluded that an electrical fault, most likely a short circuit in the wiring outside the 747’s giant central fuel tank, somehow ignited hot fuel vapors inside the nearly empty tank.
During my own reporting, I met a man at a restaurant in New York City who brought a small part of the plane he had picked up on the beach and who was able to confirm a downed Boeing of N93119, tail number 747. I was held for a few minutes by an FBI agent in the hangar in Calverton where The fuselage was partially rebuilt by the NTSB, where reporters were invited for a day to view the reconstruction; He confiscated my tape recorder and camera and only returned them after confirming in a phone call with Doug Simmons, managing editor of the Village Voice, that I was reporting to them. I never got an explanation as to why I was arrested, but I did wonder why the FBI was still in the barn, since the day before FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom said there was no evidence that the accident was caused by anything but mechanical failure. and I drove as fast as reasonably possible back to Connecticut from Washington, D.C., after the final official vote of the NTSB on the probable cause of the disaster, carrying a report given to me by a representative of the Aircraft Mechanics Association which showed that tremendous heat was present, outside and above TWA Flight’s central tank. 800, before the tank roof was shattered in the blast. A veteran crash investigator told me he thinks the NTSB should investigate the source of that heat “even its ying-yang.”

Among the dead were teenage girls from Montoursville High School in Pennsylvania, an executive from Bristol-Myers Squibb, and a former Harvard ice hockey player from France. Family members of a Mountoursville student, Bristol Myers Squibb executive, and hockey player told me they lacked confidence that they had been told the full truth about the accident that took the lives of their loved ones.
I think they may be right to ask.

Robert Davey is a journalist based in Bridgeport.

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