Search for TWA answers moves here Hundreds expected at convention center for hearing on crash

December 07, 1997|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

The National Transportation Safety Board's largest public hearing ever opens tomorrow in Baltimore, promising a detailed look into what may have caused Paris-bound TWA Flight 800 to explode off Long Island in July 1996, killing all 230 aboard.

After scrutinizing more than 1 million pieces of wreckage, conducting 7,000 interviews and spending nearly $50 million, federal investigators believe that something -- faulty wiring, static electricity -- ignited vapors in the nearly empty center fuel tank.

The exact cause, however, may never be known.

For air travelers worldwide, the session at the recently expanded Baltimore Convention Center will highlight some disturbing issues about aging aircraft such as the 26-year-old Boeing 747-100 used on Flight 800. For families of the victims, it may offer some closure, if not a villain.

"Everything is the same, but I have to be there," said Ann Craven, the mother of Paula Craven, a flight attendant who died in the crash while vacationing with her 9-year-old son, Jay.

"We have to know everything about what happened," the Bel Air resident.

Only five of the 355 airline crashes since 1967, when the NTSB was established, remain unsolved.

The public has been riveted on the TWA 800 probe, which initially delved into into the possibility that the crash was caused by a terrorist act, even a missile attack. But as the investigation dragged on, it also led to suspicions that the government was hiding something.

"I've never seen an investigation with the drama that it's had for the American people and for the people of the world," said Michael Barr, director of the aviation safety program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"The hearing will be the type that has never been seen before," he said.

Indeed, the scope is extraordinary -- with at least 800 people, including 100 family members, dozens of lawyers, expert witnesses and representatives of TWA and Boeing, expected to fill a 30,000-square-foot room. Two 12-by-16-foot video screens will show the proceedings, and a pair of risers on either side of the hall will give spectators a better view.

Nearly 500 reporters and news media technicians from around the world -- including every major network -- will cover the event. Dozens of satellite television trucks will be stationed in the convention center parking lot. "It's going to be a major media thing," said Peggy Daidakis, executive director of the convention center. "The lobby will be turned into a television studio every night."

So overwhelming were the logistics that the NTSB summoned help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which normally handles natural disasters.

"It's certainly the biggest hearing we've ever done," said Ted Lopatkiewicz, spokesman for the NTSB, which has spent more than half its annual budget on the TWA Flight 800 investigation.

Baltimore was chosen, he said, because of the size of its convention center, the availability of hotel rooms and its central location in the mid-Atlantic region. While city officials have not calculated the dollar benefits, the economic spinoff for hotels and restaurants will be substantial.

Today, the NTSB will issue the investigative docket, more than 4,000 pages of largely technical data gathered by the agency and private research laboratories throughout the world. Starting tomorrow, panels of investigators will face questions from NTSB technical experts and the board of inquiry headed by NTSB Chairman James Hall.

About 375 divers recovered 96 percent of the wreckage from the ocean floor -- at a cost of $6 million -- and the 747's hulk was reassembled in a hangar in New York.

Investigators then examined more than 1,400 places where the plane was torn and 259 areas of missing fuselage, and they took more than 2,000 chemical samples. They shot missile warheads at scrapped jumbo jets; they attached tiny bombs favored by international terrorists to a wrecked 747's fuel tank and detonated the charges.

In November, the FBI concluded that the explosion was not a criminal act, but last week, it insisted that the NTSB eliminate any discussion of the accounts by 244 witnesses or the explosive residue found on the planes' seats -- for fear such information could hinder any future criminal probe. At the FBI's request, the safety board also scrapped plans to screen the Central Intelligence Agency's video re-creation of the crash.

Mechanical failure

The hearing will concentrate almost exclusively on the possibility of a devastating mechanical failure. While declining to elaborate, NTSB Chairman Hall said last week that he hopes to "move the ball significantly" with new evidence and ultimately establish at least a "probable" cause.

Many aviation safety experts, however, are skeptical.

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