Flight 800 theorists stick to their guns

Crash: Amateur investigators dismiss the government's conclusion that a vapor explosion brought down a TWA Boeing 747.

September 19, 1999|By Tom Bowman

SOMETIME EARLY next year will come the last official word on what caused the crash of TWA Flight 800, which set out for Paris on July 17, 1996, and exploded in a fireball over Long Island Sound, sending all 230 passengers and crew members to a watery grave.

The National Transportation Safety Board is expected by March to issue its final report on the crash of the Boeing 747 and will point to an electrical failure, which ignited vapors in a center wing tank, said a top NTSB official, who requested anonymity.

The tank's explosion ripped off the front of the plane, which climbed several thousand feet before it began its perilous descent into the water, said investigators.

But retired Navy Cmdr. William S. Donaldson III, 55, a combat pilot during the Vietnam War who investigated a dozen Navy crashes during his 25-year career, points to another cause: a shoulder-fired missile from a terrorist aboard a speedboat some three miles away.

Thomas Stalcup, 29, a doctoral candidate in physics at Florida State University, has another explanation, backed by dozens of other amateur TWA 800 sleuths: A military "special operations" exercise supported by a "fleet" of fast-moving ships off Long Island Sound accidentally fired a missile that brought down the plane.

Neither man has concrete evidence to support his theory. They blend portions of evidence, from radar blips to bomb residue. They argue that the government's conclusions of a vapor explosion and a rising, crippled aircraft are impossible. And from eyewitness accounts, they conclude, on their Web sites and in media conferences, that a missile can be the only reason for the crash.

When they ponder the government's explanation, they see incompetence and cover-up. They dismiss an investigation that has cost $40 million and included the FBI, the NTSB, the CIA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire-arms and scientists from government labs and private universities.

"They're both wrong," said former FBI assistant director James Kallstrom, who led the criminal investigation into the TWA 800 crash, referring to Donaldson and Stalcup.

"They have seen none of the evidence," said an exasperated Kallstrom, who has left the agency for private industry. " ... There's no forensic evidence of anything hitting the plane."

Kallstrom said investigators first thought a bomb or missile destroyed the aircraft, given eyewitness accounts of a streak of light across the sky. " ... We took the eyewitness accounts very seriously," he said. "I put 500 agents on it as if it were a missile."

But tests of the plane's wreckage, more than 95 percent of which was recovered, pointed not to a bomb or missile but to an internal explosion in the huge center wing fuel tank.

A December 1997 report by the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division in China Lakes, Calif., said there was "no evidence" of a missile strike, noting that the wreckage bore none of the telltale signs, such as high-velocity penetration or soot residue. What the witnesses saw, investigators realized, was not a missile rising to meet the plane but the plane breaking up in the sky.

But Donaldson and Stalcup say many of the more than 100 witnesses, including veterans who had experience with missiles and gunnery fire, clearly saw a rising streak of light that would indicate some type of ordnance.

Donaldson, who left the Navy in 1991 and owns a farm in St. Mary's County, has been obsessed with the crash since April 1997, when he read a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by NTSB Chairman James Hall that discounted the missile theory and pointed to a spontaneous explosion in the center wing tank. "I knew the fuel couldn't do what he said it did," said Donaldson.

Since then, Donaldson has created the Associated Retired Aviation Professionals to look into the crash, peppered government officials with questions, prodded lawmakers to mount a new investigation and crafted his own fuel experiments.

It's impossible for the plane's fuel to create an explosion, Donaldson says, noting that it is difficult to light and would have quickly burned out in the tank because of a lack of oxygen. In millions of takeoffs, he said, the accident described by investigators has never happened.

"He's simply wrong," said a top NTSB official who asked that he not be named. The official said a similar explosion took place aboard a Philippine Air Lines Boeing 737 and killed eight people on May 11, 1990, at Manila International Airport.

Despite investigators' findings that a faulty switch and damaged wires probably ignited the fuel-air mixture in the tank, Donaldson sticks to his theory that a terrorist, not a fuel tank mishap, brought down the aircraft.

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