No easy answers: Books about TWA
800 flawed by lack of skepticism,
By Scott Holleran
In the Blink of an Eye
By Pat Milton
(Random House, $26.95)
By Christine Negroni
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
order is odd, given that it came after the FBI ruled out friendly fire.
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
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
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
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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