Dan's Papers, Long Island

July 16, 1999 

When Were the Black Boxes Found? 

Discrepancies Surface in Flight 800 Versions Put Out by the 
Navy and the NTSB 

  By Jerry Cimisi 

  Three years after TWA Flight 800 went down
  over the Atlantic off Moriches, killing all 230
  aboard, there remains a puzzling official
  discrepancy in the date the plane's black
  boxes were found. A discrepancy that
  appears to indicate the Cockpit Voice
  Recorder (CVR) and the Flight Data
  Recorder (FDR) were hauled up out of the
  ocean sometime between sunset and midnight
  on July 23, but not transported to Washington
  D.C. for analysis by the FBI and NTSB until
  after 2 a.m. on July 25, a strange lapse of
  over 24 hours -- this at a time when by all
  accounts every official agency involved in the
  Flight 800 investigation (as well as the public)
  wanted to find out what was in those black
  boxes as soon as possible. 

  The Navy's own salvage report and a Navy
  message to the Coast Guard obtained under a
  Freedom of Information Act request, report
  that the black boxes were found "PM 23
  JUL" by the USS Grasp. No precise time is
  specified. In an interview with a seaman who
  worked with the divers on the Grasp during
  Flight 800 recovery operations, he recalled
  the boxes being found sometime between 9
  p.m. and midnight, most likely "around 11." 

  On the other hand, the National
  Transportation Safety Board puts the time of
  recovery at 11:30 p.m. on July 24. 

  Official documents do indicate, among them
  the above Naval message, as well as a Coast
  Guard log, that the black boxes were flown to
  Washington D.C. in a Blackhawk helicopter,
  accompanied by the FBI in the early a.m.
  hours of July 25. The Navy message relates
  the boxes arriving at 3:55 a.m. at Washington
  National Airport. 

  Why the 24 hours plus delay? In addition, it is
  an established fact that the NTSB had the
  location of the tail section of the plane, in
  which were the black boxes, within 48 hours
  of the destruction of the plane -- in other
  words, by the end of the day of July 19.
  Again, with officials talking openly about the
  very real possibility of terrorism, and surely
  wanting to know just what those boxes "said,"
  why did it take several days to bring them up?

  * * * 

  The second ship at the crash site was the
  Rude (pronounced like New York's mayor),
  a maritime survey ship operated by the
  National Oceanographic and Atmospheric
  Administration. Its job was to map the
  underwater debris field. It completed its
  survey within 24 hours after the crash and
  within 48 hours had presented to the NTSB a
  detailed map of the debris field. The Rude is
  currently updating sea charts for the waters
  surrounding Long Island and is docking at
  Montauk throughout the summer. 

  Some readers may remember what seemed
  like an unfortunate and embarrassing faux pas
  by Congressman Michael Forbes in relation to
  the black boxes. Within two days of the
  tragedy, Forbes makes an announcement that
  the boxes are about to be brought up. But
  within hours officials said Forbes was
  incorrect, the boxes are not about to be
  recovered. Forbes has to go on TV and
  basically say he misinterpreted what he had
  been told and apologized to the families of the
  victims for causing them to think they are
  about to get some answers. 

  What exactly had Forbes been told -- and
  when? After all, it was at this time that the
  Rude had mapped the debris field, in which
  would be the tail section of the plane. 

  Through several months at the end of the
  spring of 1998 and into the summer, this
  reporter tried to get some comment from
  Forbes, via the congressman's press
  secretary, Tony Howard, on just why Forbes
  had said what he had. But Forbes did not
  return messages. 

  However, an official source who was at a
  meeting with Forbes, the NTSB, FBI and
  Coast Guard ("I don't think there was any
  Navy," said the source), and who spoke on
  guarantee of anonymity, related that either on
  July 18 or 19, the day after Flight 800 went
  down or two days after (the source could not
  recall specifically which date), Forbes had
  pointedly asked about the black boxes and
  was told they would be brought up "as soon
  as possible." Forbes then asked: "Isn't that
  [the location of the boxes] in the tail section?"
  He was told that was true. Then Forbes
  asked, "Do you know where the tail section of
  the plane is?" 

  He was told: Yes. Which agrees with the fact
  that the Rude had supplied a detailed map of
  the debris field by then. 

  Putting two and two together: the fact that the
  boxes would be brought up "as soon as
  possible" and the fact that the tail section had
  been located, Forbes make his
  announcement, which surely he came to
  regret. Elected to Congress in the Republican
  tide of 1994, Forbes has won re-election
  twice, though his last opponent brought up
  Forbes' "mistake" about the black boxes in
  the opening slavos of the campaign. 

  Surprisingly, according to Newsday archives,
  the paper (which won a Pulitzer Prize for its
  coverage of Flight 800) did not write about
  the Congressman's blunder the next day, but
  in an article dated the 25th, did mention the
  Forbes' mistake, as well as what is
  euphemistically called a mis-statement by
  Governor Pataki regarding some aspect of the
  recovery operations. 

  Another source, who claims to have had a
  private conversation with an NTSB official
  three days after the crash, said he was told by
  this individual the black boxes had been
  located. Again, this is four days before the
  NTSB says the boxes were recovered and
  three days before the Navy records the black
  boxes' recovery. This source took a lie
  detector test (at which this reporter was
  present) on this and other matters regarding
  the above conversation; the source passed the
  polygraph. (The full contents of this
  conversation will be explored in a future

  The abovementioned Newsday article also
  says the flight data recorders were found on
  July 24. 

  When queried as to the discrepancy between
  the Navy records and the NTSB regarding
  the date of recovery of the black boxes,
  NTSB Public Affairs spokesman Paul
  Schlamn wondered if the Navy message to
  the Coast Guard (saying the black boxes
  were recovered "PM 23 JUL") might not have
  been a typographical error which was then
  copied into the Navy Salvage Report. 

  The message was sent from the Navy's
  Command Task Group of the recovery
  operation to a number of ships also in the
  operation as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  and the Commander in Chief of the Atlantic

  The Coast Guard Search and Rescue Event
  Log for July 24, 1996 has the 2330 (11:30
  p.m.) entry: "Flight Data Recorder and
  Cockpit Voice Recorder located." 

  The Coast Guard's Group Moriches
  "Chronological Case Log" for the evening of
  July 24-25 states that the "black boxes were
  delivered to base -- transfered to
  Blackhawk...." At 0225: "Blackhawk

  The Navy message makes further mention of
  the recovery of the boxes: 


  The message has more than a little about
  "PUBLIC AFFAIRS." The media is
  requesting interviews with the divers. The
  Navy Media Center had recorded its own
  Still photos, film and digital images were
  produced by a "COMBAT CAMERA
  CREW. Photos ran on the AP wire. 

  * * * 

  There is another puzzling aspect of the
  recovery of the boxes. The FDR and CVR
  are located electronically as a result of the
  continual transmission of the boxes' Dukane
  pingers. Yet, according to the USS Grasp
  seaman, the pingers for both black boxes
  were not transmitting when they were found.
  It is unusual for one not to be working, but for
  two not to be working is not common. 

  The seaman asserted: "The pingers were
  definitely not working. The divers were sent
  down with pinger devices that didn't pick
  them [the boxes] up. The ROVs couldn't find
  them either." 

  ROVs are Remote Operating Vehicles,
  basically underwater robotic probes that can
  take remote pictures and live video in depths
  up to 1,000 feet. The Navy also made use of
  the Pinger Locator System (PLS) which is a
  cylinder shaped device a few feet long that
  contains a microphone. The PLS is towed
  underwater in an effort to locate the pingers. 

  The Grasp seaman said the pingers were
  found "by luck. The diver stepped off the
  stage and there they were." (The "stage" is a
  platform on which the divers are lowered.)
  "They were just lying on the sand," the
  crewman added. Both pingers were found
  lying free of the wreckage. 

  The seaman attributed the silence of the
  pingers to the fact that the side that emitted
  the transmission was lying on sand. It is
  debatable, however, if simply being placed on
  sand would silence the pingers; other aviation
  experts say that the boxes would have to be
  buried within the sand for the transmission of
  the pingers to be silenced. 

  If something were wrong with both pingers,
  nothing of this was noted in any of the NTSB
  reports; it was not noted in the NTSB
  testimony at the hearings on Flight 800 in
  December, 1997 in Baltimore. Apparently in
  laboratory analysis the pingers were working 

  The Grasp crewmember was asked if he was
  sure he had been present at the recovery of
  the boxes. He said, "Definitely. I remember
  everyone being excited and clapping when we
  found them. I helped carry the buckets with
  the boxes in them. There was a Coast Guard
  boat shining bright lights down on them. The
  boxes aren't black, you know, they're

  He guessed that the boxes were on board "an
  hour, no more than two" before they were
  taken to shore by a Coast Guard boat. 

  Dick Coles, Public Afairs spokesman for
  Naval Sea Systems Command said, "We are
  working with the NTSB in resolving any
  discrepancy with the log." 

  In conclusion, the discrepancy between the
  Navy, NTSB and Coast Guard dates in
  regard to the recovery of the black boxes, as
  well as if the pingers were working or not,
  raises further questions about the "facts" in the
  Flight 800 investigation -- which is three years
  old this weekend. 

  * * * 

  On Friday, July 16, James and Elizabeth
  Sanders will be sentenced at Federal Court in
  Uniondale for possessing seat fabric from
  Flight 800 that had been passed to them by a
  TWA pilot who was a party to the
  investigation. Elizabeth Sanders was a flight
  attendent instructor for TWA at the time of
  the tragedy. James Sanders had the fabric
  analyzed and in his book, The Downing of
  TWA Flight 800, argued that the residue on
  the seat fabric was consistent with a residue
  that would be left by rocket or missile fuel. 

  As this weekend marks the third year
  anniversay of the tragedy, family members of
  those who died on Flight 800 will be allowed
  to visit the reconstruction of the wreckage at
  the old Grumman site in Calverton and any
  final remains of the victims will be taken or
  disposed of. There will also be a memorial
  service at Smith's Point on Saturday and on
  Sunday NTSB Chairman James Hall will
  meet with the families at the Holiday Inn in
  Ronkonkoma to relate to them the status of
  the investigation.