Associated Retired Aviation Professionals

                   No easy answers: Books about TWA Flight
             800 flawed by lack of skepticism, 
             incomplete conclusions


                   By Scott Holleran

                   In the Blink of an Eye
                   By Pat Milton
                   (Random House, $26.95)

                   Deadly Departure
                   By Christine Negroni
                   (HarperCollins, $25)

                   When TWA Flight 800 broke apart over Long Island's waters in July
                   1996, killing all 230 people on board, it was the worst commercial aviation
                   disaster in U.S. history. 

                   Despite near-perfect conditions for investigations by the National
                   Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), FBI and CIA (cost: more than $40
                   million), the cause apparently remains unknown, though the NTSB is
                   scheduled to meet Aug. 22 to formulate its final report. Two recent books
                   about the crash fail to explain the tragedy. 

                   Associated Press reporter Pat Milton focuses on lead FBI investigator
                   James Kallstrom in her account, In the Blink of an Eye. And Mr.
                   Kallstrom comes across as her tragic hero, despite an immediately
                   apparent problem: His heroism is dubious. Even with unlimited authority,
                   he failed in his primary task, to determine the cause of the crash.
                   Nevertheless, Ms. Milton presents his work as exemplary. 

                   FBI and NTSB investigators hovered in Long Island for weeks while
                   bodies and wreckage remained unrecovered and passengers' families were
                   suspended in agonies of uncertainty, not knowing for sure even who was
                   on the plane. While TWA had a hand in the long information delay, it was
                   the FBI, Ms. Milton notes, that seized the passenger manifest almost

                   Other facts demand deeper scrutiny than is present here. Ms. Milton does
                   not mention the FBI's insistence that the wreckage be evaluated by a
                   manufacturer of projectiles used for military exercises. The timing of the
                   order is odd, given that it came after the FBI ruled out friendly fire. Ms.
                   Milton never mentions that former NTSB member Vernon Grose publicly
                   expressed doubts about the investigation after attending a missile-theory
                   presentation. And she ignores a still-unidentified radar track consistent with
                   a boat moving at 30 knots directly beneath TWA Flight 800 when it was
                   destroyed; the plane blew up, and the radar track kept moving serenely
                   out to sea. 

                   That a top journalist leaves crucial details unexplored renders Blink as
                   unfinished as the investigation. True, the FBI, NTSB, Navy divers and
                   hundreds of others may have worked diligently to solve the mystery, but
                   hard work is not the sole measure of heroism. Ms. Milton's adoring plea
                   that investigators really, really tried is hardly the whole story. 

                   While Ms. Milton presents an apologia for the FBI, former CNN reporter
                   Christine Negroni postulates the NTSB's pet theory - mechanical failure -
                   in Deadly Departure. She fares slightly better. Interspersing haunting
                   stories of passengers - which works - with the case against Boeing - which
                   doesn't - Ms. Negroni cites previous explosions as evidence that the
                   aircraft manufacturer has failed to build safer airplanes. With TWA Flight
                   800 as the first 747 to explode in flight, it's a tough sell. 

                   However, like the NTSB, Ms. Negroni's real problem lies in her limited
                   scope. She cites other fuel-tank explosions, including a 707 struck by
                   lightning in 1963 and a TWA jet that aborted takeoff and crashed because
                   of engine failure. By making fuel-tank explosions her theme, the former
                   aviation reporter dismisses the source of the ignition as unimportant.
                   Stating that the plane was brought down by a fuel-tank explosion, as Ms.
                   Negroni does, is false; it's like claiming the Titanic was sunk by a lookout
                   lacking binoculars. 

                   Deadly Departure is at its best when Ms. Negroni gets to the
                   investigation's inside story, citing numerous blunders and serious breaches
                   of investigative procedures and noting the secrecy and inefficiency of those
                   involved. Commenting on the huge presence of FBI and other federal
                   agents, one NTSB investigator remarked, "What do they know that I don't

                   Free-lance writer Scott Holleran (sholleran@earthlink. net), a regular
                   contributor to the Books pages, lives in Southern California. Officials
                   informed him that his parents had been killed in the crash of TWA Flight
                   800. Officials, he later learned, were wrong.

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