by Timothy Chilman
Around 2019 eastern daylight time on July 17, 1996, Trans World Airlines, Inc (TWA) Flight 800, a Boeing 747-131 airliner with tail number N93119, was delayed for just over one hour at John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) in New York because there was a mismatch between passengers and baggage. This resolved, the aircraft took off bound for Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris. Aboard were two pilots, two flight engineers, 14 flight attendants, and 212 passengers. At 2031, when at a height of 13,760 feet 8 miles from East Moriches, New York, TWA 800 exploded and its remains landed in the Atlantic Ocean 30 seconds later.
The 230 souls on board were most likely killed by what is described by medical examiners as “phenomenal whiplash,” caused by impact with objects inside the cabin or deceleration. Although many of the bodies were burned, it is believed this occurred after death.
The captain, Steven Snyder, had completed over 17,000 flying hours and was so famed for his conservation of fuel that flying an airplane efficiently came to be known as “Snyderizing.” It would have been co-pilot Ralph Kevorkian’s final flight before being certified as a captain. The aircraft had left the factory on July 15, 1971, the day before flight engineer Oliver Krick was born. Andy Krukar had a diamond ring in his pocket, which he planned to place upon the finger of his fiancée, Julie Stuart, at the Eiffel Tower. Stuart wears the ring to this day. Joe Lychner of Austin, Texas, missed the flight due to a last-minute business appointment, and was not killed with his wife Pam and daughters 10 year-old Shannon and 8 year-old Katie.
16 students from the Montoursville High School French club and five chaperones were killed. One was Rance Hettler, a 6’3” track star who planned to attend Northeastern University’s School of Criminal Justice and desired to become an FBI agent. The FBI posthumously made him an honorary FBI agent, and gave an FBI baseball cap to his parents, which was buried with him. The Montoursville children were described as “the best of the best,” and they had toiled all year to fund the trip, selling candy, cookies, pizza, and hoagies, and performing car washes. One resident remarked, “This is not a wealthy community.”
Ana Maria Shorter was the wife of jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, whom she was traveling with her niece to meet in Italy, where he was touring. Michel Breistroff, 25, was a member of the French national hockey team who was expected to participate in the 1998 Winter Olympics. Edwin B. and Ruth D. Brooks has been married for more than 56 years and spent a minimum of four months of every year traveling.
11 year-old Ludovic Chanson from a small town near Versailles had just completed his second summer as an exchange student. He had acquired a collection of New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls memorabilia and was particularly fond of pistachio ice cream with sprinkles. Flight attendants Melinda Tucker and Ray Lang were engaged to be married.
The first recorded witness to the explosion was Captain David McClaine, flying an Eastwind Airlines Boeing 737 near the coast of Long Island. At 2032.01, he was recorded saying, “We just saw an explosion up ahead of us here something [like] about sixteen thousand feet [altitude] or something like that. It just went down—to the water.”
The official explanation is that one center wing fuel tank exploded because of an electrical spark caused by a short circuit in an undetermined component. It is the only time a fuel tank ever exploded without a clear cause during flight, and, strangely, aircraft survive lightning strikes. There are other explanations. An article co-authored by Ian Goddard and JFK’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, suggested that the aircraft was destroyed by a missile from a U.S. Navy ship, which would have required the silence of an untold number of people for more than a decade-and-a-half. Goddard later described his actions as “reckless and a mistake,” a product of his desire to inflict a “black eye” upon the government. He said that “TWA 800 was just a vehicle for my larger agenda.” Salinger died in 2004 after suffering from dementia, but he is survived by “Pierre Salinger Syndrome,” the belief that everything found on the internet is true.
Another possibility is electromagnetic interference from nearby U.S. military elements: a P3 Orion, a C-130, a Black Hawk helicopter, a C-141, a C-10, the Coast Guard cutter Adak, and the warships Normandy, Trepany, Albuquerque, and Wyoming. NASA and the Joint Spectrum Center investigated and dismissed the idea. The Joint Spectrum Center solves problems arising from the electromagnetic spectrum. On the internet can be found the case for the explosion having been caused by a particle beam, but a better proposition is that responsibility falls to a man-portable air defense system (MANPAD) – a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile (SAM).
Terrorist possession of a MANPAD is not inconceivable. In January 2010, authorities seized a cargo airplane in Bangkok which contained 35 tons of North Korean weapons. Amongst the weapons were Chinese HN-5 MANPADs, less capable than the MANPAD Iran manufactures itself. A sound explanation is that the MANPADs were to be given to terrorists, allowing Iran plausible deniability. TWA 800 was lost on July 17, which was the Iraqi National Liberation Day, the day the Ba’ath party took power. This date could have been chosen to implicate the government of Saddam Hussein.
Since 1973, 30 civilian aircraft have been brought down and 920 civilians killed by MANPADs, which are cheap and relatively small. Many U.S. Stingers were given to Afghans fighting the Soviets and several are known to be in the possession of Iran. Stinger’s operation has been likened to that of a point-and-shoot camera. On the open market, a low-end MANPAD costs $5,000 while the most capable, the Chinese Vanguard, costs $50,000. The Vanguard is based in part on the Stinger but has a superior range and better tracking. In 1994, a French Mistral MANPAD on a tripod was found by Maryland State Police beneath a busy air corridor near Westminster, Maryland.
Bill Clinton levied trade sanctions against Iran in 1995. The Iranians termed the Iran/Libya Sanctions Act an act of war. Shortly after, Iranian proxies bombed U.S. troops at Khobar Towers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
96 eye-witnesses saw the explosion from the Long Island shore, boats, and a nearby helicopter and jet. Interviewed by the FBI, they told of a streak of light that traveled from the Earth to the aircraft, which exploded. Many at first thought it was a firework, except the explosion was too large. An FBI agent documented that one witness saw “what he thought was a shooting star traveling west to east, coming from the south shore, over Fire Island.” The object seen moved faster than an aircraft.
Another witness said she saw what she thought was a contrail travel from the ocean to the aircraft. Other witnesses agreed that the light stream originated from a boat. To a news camera, Lou Desepoli said he saw something that was “a bright, reddish orange color” which looked like a flare. The light seen by witnesses lasted for around six seconds, approximately as long as a MANPAD’s rocket burns.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) claims these witnesses saw burning jet fuel released as TWA 800, still featuring wings, climbed 3,000 feet after the nose detached and weight was lost. It is widely believed that this contravenes the laws of physics and nobody saw the airplane climbing, including pilots who saw it from above. The CIA produced a video to explain the theory, an unusual step to take after a commercial air disaster. It was shown by many news channels. It was made after the CIA received only 244 of 755 accounts. While data from various satellites and radars was employed, it largely used only one eye-witness. This witness had at first maintained that the streak of light originated from ground level, and only gave the version used by the CIA during his third interview. FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom said the video was “conjecture, based on a lot of evidence.” The NTSB Witness Group said the streak of light seen by so many did not match the flight path of TWA 800, and highlighted the CIA’s divergence from the account of so many people.
On March 15, 1999, the train Spirit of New Orleans derailed after hitting a steel truck on a railroad crossing in Bourbonnaise, IL. In order to prove that the truck had driven around a safety gate, the NTSB called for witnesses, whom it chose to believe on this occasion.
Pilots of US Airways, Delta, and Northwest flights all reported what they believed to be missile sightings. The FAA claims that they saw two D-5 Trident missiles launched from the submarine USS West Virginia off the coast of Florida on a night of clear visibility, leading Navy Captain Michael Doubleday to comment that “It stretches the imagination that anybody could see 1,900 to 2,000 miles, no matter what altitude they are flying at.”
The Associated Retired Aviation Professionals (ARAP) was created early in June 1997 to independently investigate the crash of TWA Flight 800. Some members were experienced crash investigators, including ARAP’s head, who was employed by the Navy. Assistance was received from people within the NTSB investigation. The organization claims to have testimony to the effect that Bill Clinton called an FBI command post concerned with the Olympics and told them the airplane was shot down with a MANPAD. It also says there are witnesses prepared to testify that George Gabrial, a senior FBI agent, said he believed he had observed a missile.
It was reported by the Free Republic and ARAP that a Freedom of Information Act petition by retired United Airline captain Ray Lahr revealed a document dated six days after the crash:
“On Tuesday, July 23, 1996, a representative from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) advised [the FBI] that after a visual analysis of both the videotape as well as a number of still photographs taken from various portions of the tape, the phenomenon captured by [redacted] appeared to be consistent with the exhaust plume from a MANPAD missile.”
Ray Lahr can be contacted through www.findagrave.com.
TWA 800 had been carrying a shipment of small, pet turtles, corneas for transplant and 800 pounds of glitter. First responders found the glitter coating the calm surface of the Atlantic. The fumes from burning jet fuel made it difficult to breathe. There were thousands of pieces of yellow insulation, some the size of a palm and some as large as car doors. There was a postcard of the Statue of Liberty, a piece of unchewed gum, a box of Cheerios, a woman’s black leather jacket, and a white teddy bear. 39,600 items of personal effects were eventually recovered.
Officially, the aircraft black box flight recorders were found at 2330 on 24 July, one week after TWA 800 crashed, by divers Chief Petty Officer Kevin Oelhafen and Petty Officer Douglas Irish of the USS Grasp.
ARAP says the official account of the discovery of the black boxes contradict divers ARAP interviewed, who put it more than 24 hours earlier. The boxes ought to have been found in the tail cone section of the aircraft, or at least within its debris, but instead they were found 30 feet apart away from any debris – just as if they had been dropped from a boat. This would have allowed NTSB/FBI officials to examine the boxes earlier, and withhold them if they showed evidence of a missile attack. Although polygraph tests are as reliable as reading animal entrails, they impress the U.S. government. A witness who has passed one and sworn an affidavit says an NTSB manager informed him that the black boxes were found by 20 July.
The voice recording of the black boxes revealed 11-and-a-half minutes of routine conversation. Immediately before the silence was a “brief, fraction-of-a-second sound” very similar to those heard on the recorder of two airplanes downed by bombs, an Air India flight off Ireland and Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. Usually, a structural break-up causes several seconds of immense noise as metal is torn. An airplane has never, ever been destroyed instantaneously. There would have been unusual changes to other variables.
The FBI conducted a dredging operation from November 1996 to April 1997. Team members found two commercial fishing vessels had picked up and then discarded what appeared to be the first stage of a MANPAD, the missile’s ejector-motor can. This is roughly as large as a Coke can, and separates from the main unit when the second stage booster ignites.
A crewmember of the Alpha Omega had found one such can early in October while trawling for scallops approximately two nautical miles from where TWA 800 exploded. FBI agents showed the crewman photographs of three Stinger parts, which elicited the reply that one had been found and disposed of. The most obvious features the found item had in common with that photographed were two distinctive ignition wires connected to the can. Special Agents Otto and Bongardt then took a live Stinger ejector-motor can to show the crewman, and during hours of interrogation the crewman insisted his find was similar yet somehow different to one photograph. This suggests the component the crewman obtained was for the Russian SA16/18 missiles or the Vanguard.
Data supplied to the FBI by China Lake Naval Air Weapons Facility indicated that a MANPAD launched from a low forward direction would head for the three air pack exhaust ports, directly beneath the center wing tank.
Jet fuel is 700 times as dense as air. The fragments of a MANPAD warhead would be brought to a halt by a few feet of fuel, avoiding damage to aircraft components by high velocity fragments. Fragments of this nature are what alerted investigators to the likelihood that Pan Am 103 was brought down by a bomb in December 1988: pieces of the radio-cassette player containing the bomb had impacted upon the cargo container carrying it, with a force that could only be explained by a bomb explosion. When Kalstrom announced the results of the FBI’s investigation into the explosion of TWA 800, he said the lack of these fragments showed that a missile strike did not bring down the airplane. James Kalstrom is fulloshit.
Kalstrom shut down the criminal investigation into TWA 800 from November 1997. A fast-moving boat captured on radar a mere 2.9 nautical miles from where the airplane had exploded was never identified, as Kalstrom’s successor Lewis Schiliro told Congressman Traficant. After retiring, Kalstrom was recorded saying this boat was actually a helicopter, but since the object was tracked at a speed under 35 knots for 35 minutes, even FBI agents find this inconceivable.
Almost a million pieces of TWA 800 were recovered – 96 percent of the aircraft. A 93 foot section of the airplane was reassembled in a hangar in Calverton, N.Y. which formerly produced shining Grumman fighters. It was the largest and most complex jigsaw puzzle in the world, taking 100,000 work hours and $500,000. Christened the “jetosaurus rex,” it now resides at the new NTSB Academy in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, where it is used in the teaching of crash investigations. Only three other reconstructions of this kind have ever been carried out, of which one was a 65 foot section of Pan Am 103.
In rows 17-19 of the cabin was a reddish-orange trail. Independent investigator James Sanders says it became a hot topic for investigators after the FBI took samples but declined to share the results with NTSB staff. Sanders had a sample analyzed by the Los Angeles commercial laboratory West Coast Analytical Services, whereupon the substance was, according to Sanders, found to be the exhaust residue of a solid fuel missile. The headline of California’s Riverside Press-Enterprise bellowed “New Data Show Missile May Have Nailed TWA 800.” The FBI countered that the substance was adhesive. Proceedings against Sanders were initiated for the theft of evidence, under a Federal law to deter scavengers that was instituted in 1996 after a Floridan truck driver was accused of removing a fragment from the wreckage of the May 1996 Valujet crash.
TWA 800 clearly fell victim to a man-portable SAM. Iran has shown an apparent willingness to pass these onto terrorists, and certainly had the motivation. Responsibility for the attack was never claimed by Iran or assigned by the United States because war would ensue.
The investigation into TWA 800 was, according to FBI Deputy Director Shirillo, the largest in the history of the FBI and the aviation industry. More than 1,000 agents were deployed. It took four years and cost $50-60 million. It’s something of a shame that it was quite so wrong.
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