Associated Retired Aviation Professionals

Tuesday August 22 2:28 PM ET

NTSB Rules on TWA Jet Crash Cause 

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, Associated Press Writer 

WASHINGTON (AP) - Despite all the fears and conspiracy theories, the
conclusion is ``inescapable' that an explosion of vapors in a fuel tank is
what brought down TWA Flight 800 four years ago at a loss of 230 lives, a
top federal investigator concluded Tuesday.

The physical evidence ``leads to the inescapable conclusion that the cause
of the inflight breakup of TWA Flight 800 was a fuel-air explosion inside
the center wing tank,'' said Bernard S. Loeb, aviation safety director of
the National Transportation Safety Board.

He said investigators ``cannot be certain'' what ignited the blast, but the
most likely cause was an electrical short in wiring inside the tank.

There was no evidence that metal fatigue, corrosion, recent repairs of the
plane, a bomb or a missile was involved in the disaster off the coast of New
York's Long Island, he said.

``The crash of Flight 800 graphically demonstrates that, even in one of the
safest transportation systems in the world, things can go horribly wrong,''
said NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, opening a two-day meeting to study
investigators' reports on the crash and its cause.

At the session, teams of investigators set forth their findings in detail,
an effort to show that the agency has made every possible effort to
determine what happened and how it can be prevented in the future.

Indeed, the center fuel tank came under suspicion early and the agency has
made several recommendations for improvements.

The Federal Aviation Administration, in turn, has issued 37 directives to
airlines and aircraft makers for improvements and is working on other
possible changes including introducing non-flammable gas into partly full
tanks and eliminating any possible source of sparks.

The NTSB findings, however well documented, are unlikely to find acceptance
among dissenters with theories ranging from bombs to a Navy missile to air

Some contend the government is trying to cover up the real cause, and one
group, calling itself the TWA 800 Eyewitness Alliance, ran a full-page ad in
Tuesday's Washington Times insisting missiles brought the plane down.

Those theories drew a rebuke from Hall, who said the FBI, the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and his investigators all failed to find
evidence of a bomb or missile blast.

``It is unfortunate that a small number of people, pursuing their own
agendas, have persisted in making unfounded charges of government coverup in
this investigation,'' Hall said.

Bomb and missile blasts leave distinct patterns, Loeb explained.

``High-energy explosions leave distinctive damage signatures such as severe
pitting, cratering, hot gas washing, and petaling. No such damage was found
on any portion of the recovered airplane structure,'' he said.

Tiny traces of explosive discovered in the cabin were probably left over
from exercises testing bomb-sniffing dogs conducted on the plane days before
, investigators said.

``The bottom line is that our investigation confirmed that the fuel-air
vapor in the center wing tank was flammable at the time of the accident, and
that a fuel-air explosion with Jet A fuel was more than capable of
generating the pressure needed to break apart the center wing tank and
destroy the airplane,'' Loeb said.

The Boeing 747 crashed on July 17, 1996, shortly after taking off from John
F. Kennedy Airport in New York en route to Paris.

Investigator James Wildey of the NTSB's materials laboratory explained that
the explosion originated in the huge fuel tank located where the wing spars
pass through the plane's center. The tank was partly empty and air
conditioners located beneath the tank had given off heat, warming the fuel
during a long wait for takeoff.

The initial blast shoved the front wall of the fuel tank against the forward
wing spar, knocking it down onto the bottom of the nose. From there, Wildey
said, cracks rapidly moved forward, opening a hole in the bottom of the nose

Without that support, the nose bent down and came off the plane, falling to
the water, he explained. Relieved of that weight, the rear of the plane
first climbed, then rolled and plunged into the ocean, breaking up as it fell.

Wildey said his investigation found minor corrosion and a few fatigue cracks
in the 25-year-old plane but these were minor and played no part in the
crash. He said there was no evidence that recent repairs to the plane
structure were involved.
Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

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