|NTSB, TWA Trade Accusations
July 17, 1999
By GLEN JOHNSON Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - On today's third anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800, the end of the investigation is in sight but not the hard feelings between the airline and accident investigators.
Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, complained this week that Trans World Airlines has refused requests to share in the multimillion-dollar cost of recovering and storing the wreckage, unlike other airlines that have had a plane crash.
Hall said TWA has repeatedly told safety board staff members it is not responsible for the wreckage because it fell into the sea off Long Island, clouding property rights.
The chairman also said the airline and its insurer have taken a hands-off approach when asked about taking the wreckage back. In light of that, Hall wants to move what's left of the Boeing 747, including a 92-foot section that has been reconstructed, from New York to Washington so it can be used to train accident investigators.
``They refused to participate at all, even though we requested them,'' Hall said in an interview with The Associated Press.
TWA spokesman Jim Brown called Hall ``misinformed.'' Brown said NTSB rules precluded the St. Louis-based airline from helping with or financing the wreckage recovery and storage. Furthermore, he said the board never asked the airline for funding or to take custody of the wreckage.
Hall then produced letters from 1996 with a request for $5 million in assistance and the airline's denial. In another letter from 1998, the airline stated that neither it nor its insurer owned the wreckage. In reply, Brown acknowledged the airline did receive a request for recovery money, but the other letter produced by Hall did not expressly ask the airline to take back the wreckage.
Brown said airlines have refused such requests in the past, yet there is precedent for both help and refusal. Brown also said the airline has no claim to the wreckage because it fell in the ocean, where ownership often reverts to the person making the recovery.
``If they want us to take it back, it's something we would consider,'' he said.
TWA Flight 800 was a New York-to-Paris trip that exploded shortly after takeoff on July 17, 1996. All 230 aboard were killed. The wreckage fell into the Atlantic Ocean about 10 miles off Long Island, where it was recovered by the Coast Guard and Navy.
Investigators still have not determined the cause, but they believe there was a fuel-air explosion in the plane's empty center fuel tank. They are searching for the ignition source and expect to make a final determination this fall or winter.
Families of the victims planned to observe the third anniversary of the crash today with a memorial service and monument dedication.
Tension between the NTSB, the lead investigator, and TWA began building immediately after the crash because the airline had difficulty coming up with a passenger list. Later, airline officials complained privately that the safety board was leaking embarrassing information to the media.
Tempers flared again in February 1997, when the airline refused to give the victims' families reduced airfares to travel to New York for their first look at the wreckage. TWA said it had already spent roughly $13 million providing assistance.
The wreckage is now in an old aircraft plant in Calverton, N.Y., at a rent of $4.5 million annually. It will soon be moved to another hangar, where the charge will be $500,000 a year.
In an August 1996 letter, Hall asked TWA for $5 million to help in funding ``this massive operation.'' Don Monteath, then the airline's vice president of operations, refused, saying such assistance ``would raise serious public questions about the integrity and eventual findings/conclusions of NTSB inquiries.''
Monteath said the airline would support requests to Congress for more money.
In a January 1998 letter to the safety board, Randal Craft Jr., TWA's outside counsel, addressed the wreckage issue.
``This letter will confirm that TWA and its aviation insurers continue to take the position that they do not own the wreckage of Flight 800 or the personal effects of the Flight 800 passengers and crew,'' Craft wrote.
Asked this week what fate the airline favors for the wreckage, Brown said: ``TWA believes that the remains of Flight 800 should be treated like the remains of any other airplane crash and disposed of respectfully once the investigation is concluded.''
Hall said that considering the airline's response and the government's investment in the wreckage, training would be a better use.
``The wreckage itself would be able to give back to future generations lessons that would prevent a similar occurrence,'' he said.