Former investigators are pushing to reopen the probe into the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, saying new evidence points to the often-discounted theory that a missile strike may have downed the jumbo jet.
The New York-to-Paris flight crashed July 17, 1996, minutes after it took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport, killing all 230 people aboard.
The effort to reopen the probe is being made in tandem with the release next month of a documentary that features the testimony of former investigators who raise doubts about the National Transportation Safety Board’s conclusion that the crash was caused by a center fuel tank explosion, probably caused by a spark from a short-circuit in the wiring.
“We don’t know who fired the missile,” said Jim Speer, an accident investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association, one of those seeking a new review of the probe. “But we have a lot more confidence that it was a missile.”
In a petition filed Wednesday seeking to reopen the probe, they say they have “reviewed the FAA radar evidence along with new evidence not available to the NTSB during the official investigation and contend that the NTSB’s probable cause determination is erroneous and should be reconsidered and modified accordingly.”
Those calling for a review of the investigation include former NTSB accident investigator Hank Hughes and Bob Young, a former senior accident investigator for the now-defunct TWA. Tom Stalcup, a physicist and co-founder of a group called Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization, also questions the NTSB’s original findings and is featured prominently in the documentary, which is slated to air on the 17th anniversary of the crash next month.
The NTSB issued a statement Wednesday saying it was aware of the upcoming documentary.
“All petitions for reconsideration are thoroughly reviewed, and a determination is usually made within about 60 days,” spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said. “While the NTSB rarely re-investigates issues that have already been examined, our investigations are never closed and we can review any new information not previously considered by the board.”
She noted the TWA Flight 800 investigation lasted four years.
“Investigators took great care reviewing, documenting and analyzing facts and data and held a five-day hearing to gather additional facts before determining the probable cause of the accident during a two-day board meeting.”
Robert Francis, the former vice chairman of the NTSB who headed the investigation, declined to comment.
Former FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom, who headed the criminal probe after the crash, denied claims of a cover-up by the government, saying investigators “took very seriously the idea that a missile could have shot down the plane.”
Speaking on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper,” Kallstrom said they “did an exhaustive investigation,” recovering 97 percent of the airplane from the Atlantic Ocean.
“We used all the assets of the United States, all the missile experts in the military,” he said. “So I’m very confident that we had enough of that airplane to make the judgment that no criminal intervention, to our knowledge, our knowledge at the time, our knowledge in 1996, wherever that science was, that did not bring down the aircraft.”
The former investigators calling for a new probe say new evidence that a missile may have taken down the jet includes analysis of radar of the jetliner.
Speculation of a missile strike began almost immediately after the crash. Theories that an errant missile may have been fired from a U.S. military vessel were widely refuted, but conjecture about a shoulder-fired missile launched by terrorists in a small boat has never completely gone away.
The petitioners contend that the testimony of more than 200 witnesses who reported seeing streaks of light headed toward the plane should be reconsidered. The NTSB said after the first investigation that it found no evidence of a missile strike. It explained that what witnesses likely saw was the jetliner pitching upward in the first few moments after the explosion, but some witnesses still maintain that the streak of light they saw emanated from the waterline and zoomed upward toward the plane.
The petition filed with the NTSB to reopen the probe claims “new analyses of the FAA radar evidence demonstrate that the explosion that caused the crash did not result from a low-velocity fuel-air explosion as the NTSB has determined. Rather, it was caused by a detonation or high-velocity explosion.”
John Seaman, the longtime leader of an organization of TWA 800 victims’ families, noted there have been several attempts over the years to reopen the investigation.
“Unless something was to develop that would be very clear and compelling, then a lot of these interested parties are not really helpful,” said Seaman, whose niece died on the flight. He spoke to The Associated Press in a telephone interview from upstate New York on Tuesday, ahead of the formal filing of the petition.
“They reopen wounds,” he said of the petitioners. “Personally I can’t keep going over it again and again. I think most families feel that way.”
The documentary airs on the EPIX premium television channel. An EPIX spokeswoman declined to say how much the filmmakers were paid for the documentary.