Associated Retired Aviation Professionals

August 27, 2000

The Sacramento Bee

TWA fact and fiction: 
Investigation ought to end rumor-mongering

The July 1996 crash off the Long Island coast of TWA Flight 800, which took 230 lives, provides a textbook lesson on why people should not jump to conclusions. For months following the crash speculation of terrorism abounded. Reports from witnesses on the ground who told of seeing an arc of light in the sky just prior to the plane's explosion led to widespread suspicions of a missile attack.

Four years later, after the most expensive air crash probe in history, investigators have reached not a conclusion but the best theory they can muster from the evidence available. A short circuit somewhere in the plane sparked an explosion in the Boeing 747's center fuel tank. Because the physical evidence was either destroyed in the blast or at the bottom of the sea and unrecoverable, investigators cannot pinpoint exactly where the short circuit originated.

Nonetheless, the physical and circumstantial evidence available is so strong and compelling that the Federal Aviation Administration has issued 37 directives to airline operators designed to improve safety and avert similar mishaps. They include inspecting and replacing wiring in aging jetliners to reduce the danger of short circuits. The agency is also studying the feasibility of pumping nitrogen into empty fuel tanks to displace combustion-feeding oxygen.

While the exact cause cannot be established, investigators have ruled out even the remote possibility that a criminal act caused the crash. Thus, the persistent rumors of terrorist missiles and cover-ups are irresponsible and as, James Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said this week, "do a disservice to all but most especially to the TWA 800 families who have suffered so much in this tragedy."

In an unprecedented action that should help refute the false rumors that promote unfounded fears, the government plans to put extracts of the 684-page report on the NTSB Web site ( immediately. The full report will be made available to the public in a few months. Good. In a free society, only the wide dissemination of truth can combat misinformation.

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