Call to reopen probe into TWA Flight 800
Former investigators allege that inquiry into crash off New York in which 230 people died was compromised by a 'wilful denial of information'
It wasn't a missile, government officials said at the time. Just a tragic accident. It was an explosion in the plane's central fuel tank, they said, that sent TWA Flight 800 plummeting into the Atlantic Ocean in 1996, in a crash that remains one of the world's most devastating airline accidents.
Now, nearly 17 years after the Boeing 747 crashed 15 kilometres off of New York's Long Island, killing all 230 passengers and crew, the missile theory is getting a second look.
Six officials, all of whom participated in the original investigation, announced that they had filed a petition demanding that the US government reopen the investigation.
Breaking a 17-year silence, the six - including former National Transportation Safety Board senior investigator Hank Hughes and former TWA accident investigator Bob Young - alleged that they were forced to cover up original findings and were subjected to manipulation by the FBI during the course of the investigation.
"I (was) an investigator for over 42 years at time of retirement. TWA 800 was a one-of-a-kind event," Hughes said during a phone briefing for the news media on Wednesday.
"There was no instance in my entire career that was like it, from the standpoint of the manipulation of the investigation, lack of coordination, and for that matter, the wilful denial of information."
FBI officials said that they stood by their findings that a mechanical failure was to blame.
Fred Meyer, an eyewitness to the explosion, is among those who never believed this. "I'm a combat vet. I know what missiles look like," he said. "And I know what I saw."
The former investigators' allegations have been met with harsh criticism from fellow former NTSB officials who stand by the official findings.
"I think it's outrageous. And they're wrong," Bob Goelz, managing director for the NTSB from 1996 to 2000, who was on-scene from the day of the crash.
"What these guys do is cherry-pick information. It's just baloney. All (they) do is whine about the FBI. What else is new?"
In a feature-length documentary set to air on July 17, the 17th anniversary of the crash, on the Epix premium TV channel, Hughes, Young and several other now-retired investigators bring their long-guarded conclusion to light: the TWA 800 crash was caused by an outside explosion, not an internal one.
Saying they were forbidden from voicing their analysis during the official investigation, they now claim that the conclusion that a central fuel tank exploded was unsupported.
"We didn't find any part of the airplane that indicated a mechanical failure," Young said.
Although they refused to speculate, the former investigators agreed that their findings were consistent with a missile detonating near the plane's left wing.
"We categorically reject the language of 'conspiracy'," they said in the phone briefing. "However, we will say that there was a cover-up."
The NTSB issued a statement on Wednesday saying it was aware of the documentary.
"While the NTSB rarely reinvestigates issues that have already been examined, our investigations are never closed and we can review any new information not previously considered by the board," spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said.
The former investigators refused to speak on the possible motives for a cover-up. Although they said their findings conclusively led to an external explosion, they would not explicitly point towards a missile. When asked during the phone briefing who could have fired a missile or why the plane could have been shot down, the line often remained silent.
"I don't know why. I'm just going to say that what they portrayed as the cause of an accident is just not true," Young told reporters.
Their list of mishandlings includes evidence tampering, disappearing parts and a shield of secrecy separating the FBI from the rest of the investigators.
In one instance, Hughes alleged, FBI agents were caught tampering with evidence.
"On one occasion, an agent from California was brought in," he said. "I found him in the main hanger with a hammer pounding on some of the wreckage, trying to flatten it out."
In addition, the former investigators charge that the FBI buried hundreds of eyewitness accounts, like Fred Meyer's, that reported seeing a missile or streak of light before the plane plunged towards the ocean.
FBI agents allegedly told these witnesses that they "didn't see anything," and despite their willingness to testify, none of the more than 600 eyewitnesses were ever permitted to appear at any of the official NTSB hearings.
Additional reporting by Associated Press