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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Documentary Revisits TWA’s Flight 800

A new documentary on TWA’s ill-fated Flight 800 offers compelling evidence that almost everything the public thinks it knows about the plane’s demise isn’t so.

TWA Flight 800, a 90-minute film featuring interviews with a number of the now-retired investigators who examined the plane crash’s possible causes, as well as eyewitnesses to the events of that night, will be shown on Wednesday, July 17, at 8 p.m. on EPIX. It is a premium TV channel available to Verizon FiOS and DISH Network customers. The broadcast date and time is significant because TWA’s Flight 800, having left JFK Airport on its way to Paris, exploded and fell into the Atlantic Ocean, near East Moriches, on July 17, 1996, around 8:30 p.m. Two-hundred and thirty people were killed; 212 passengers, and 18 crew members.

“The National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] determines that the probable cause of the TWA Flight 800 accident was an explosion of the center wing fuel tank (CWT), resulting from ignition of the flammable fuel/air mixture in the tank,” the NTSB reported in its final assessment of the case. “The source of ignition energy for the explosion could not be determined with certainty, but, of the sources evaluated by the investigation, the most likely was a short circuit outside of the CWT that allowed excessive voltage to enter it through electrical wiring associated with the fuel.”

That is far from a definitive statement about what occurred, and implicitly acknowledges a small army of professional investigators, after years of poring over the available evidence, could not conclusively explain why Flight 800 fell from the sky.

TWA Flight 800 starts slowly, with retired investigators from entities other than the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), complaining about how the FBI ran roughshod over other agencies following the plane’s crash. Bureaucratic in-fighting and turf battles occur every day, and achieving consensus on such a complicated matter was going to be a tall order, no matter what the FBI did. An aside: Garden City novelist Nelson DeMille’s terrific 2004 book, Night Fall, offers a vivid fictional account of the federal government’s Flight 800 investigation.

The documentary’s writer and director, Kristina Borjesson, and Tom Stalcup, a Ph.D. in physics who reports the story, gain traction when they take up the cause of the Long Islanders who saw what appeared to be a missile headed toward Flight 800 before it exploded in mid-air. Their voices were too often discounted or ignored as the NTSB conducted public hearings on the tragedy, the filmmakers effectively argue. Indeed, one of the documentary’s highlights is an NBC Nightly News report on a government-conducted April 2000 test related to Flight 800. The exercise was aimed at assessing whether the general public, when witnessing a missile-caused explosion on the horizon, could identify it as such. The answer was a resounding yes, although the NBC Nightly News story on the test left viewers with the opposite impression. The filmmakers make their point with a cogent critique of the NBC piece.

The thought of a surface-to-air missile shooting down a commercial airliner in mid-flight was considered, even before 9/11, and investigators pursued the possibility, albeit with little enthusiasm, the filmmakers contend. Historical context is important. One investigator mentions in passing that the U.S. was at the time preparing to host the 1996 Summer Olympics amid concerns a terrorist attack could disrupt the proceedings.

Sure enough, on July 27, 1996, only 10 days after TWA’s Flight 800 crashed, a bomb exploded in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, causing the deaths of two people and injuring more than 100 others. The FBI’s first suspect, it is worth noting, was later exonerated.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: