Missile suspicions over TWA crash not so farfetched 

     The San Jose Mercury News 
     Published: July 25, 1999 Author: SCOTT HOLLERAN

        CONSPIRACY THEORIES attract some pretty loopy
        people for good reasons- Most of them are based on mere
        coincidences or arbitrary assertions---in other words, pure
        bunk. But this is the tale of how I began to believe in one.
        Three years ago, I was scheduled to meet my parents for
        the beginning of a long planned European vacation. It
        turned out to be the start of my journey into one of the
        great aviation mysteries of our time - the crash of TWA
        Flight 800.

        The TWA terminal at New York's JFK Airport that July 17
        was bustling with summer travelers, with whom I waited
        until my departure. My parents missed our connection, but
        I was assured by the TWA flight crew that they would
        board the next available flight, Flight 800.

        When I arrived in Europe hours later, I exited the aircraft
        through the plastic vestibule, where an airport official met
        me with a smile and politely asked where my parents were.
        I told him they'd missed the flight. He turned white.

        "Your parents are gone," he whispered as his hand moved
        to cover his mouth. He explained that their airplane had
        exploded over the Atlantic Ocean. He muttered one phrase
        in broken English: "The FBI is investigating."

        I learned that the airport official was wrong. Mom and Dad
        were alive--- they had missed that flight as well---and I was
        elated to embrace them. We traveled through Europe with a
        renewed sense of life.

        It wasn't until we boarded the flight back to the United
        States that I began to question the government's
        investigation of the crash, when members of the TWA
        flight crew told me that flight 800 had been shot down by a
        Navy missile.

        This was weeks before an anonymous e-mail message
        made similar claims, and months before journalist and
        former Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger claimed
        that a French intelligence source had informed him of a
        conspiracy by the U.S. government to cover up a military

        "Friendly fire," let alone a cover-up, seemed preposterous to
        me. As a journalist, I am inclined to be skeptical of unusual
        claims. I don't read horoscopes, and I think Shirley
        MacLaine is nuts.

        As I reviewed early news reports and attempted to match
        them with later stories, however, several discrepancies

        First, authorities issued several conflicting statements.

        Second, the anonymous e-mail---though it contained
        plenty of false information---disclosed that a Navy aircraft
        had been involved in exercises nearby at the time of the
        crash. Much later, the FBI acknowledged that fact.

        Third, I'd noticed that investiga- tors wanted to have it both
        ways. The National Transportation Safety Board's
        investigation was proceeding under the direction of the
        FBI, which was involved on the grounds that a crime might
        have caused the crash---but FBI Assistant Director James
        Kallstrom would neither con- firm nor deny the existence
        of criminal evidence.

        During the months following the crash, Salinger's
        amateurish presentations of the missile theory captured
        most of the media attention--- and ridicule. But the number
        of credible skeptics grew, and the FBI and NTSB
        developed an odd, weary demeanor. Investigators' pursuit
        of an intelligible cause diminished in proportion to the rise
        in missile claims.

        The FBI seized an amateur videotape taken by retired
        commercial pilot Richard Russell, which he said showed
        radar images of TWA 800 being downed by a missile.
        Charges were filed against freelance writer and investigator
        James Sanders, who had obtained a piece of seat fabric that
        he said contained rocket resi- due.

        I wondered why the FBI had bothered with such
        supposedly meaningless claims---and, once they had, why
        they wouldn't release the video and seat fabric for
        independent evaluation.

        A mysterious radar track

        Then the FBI's Kallstrom testified before Congress that his
        agency had tracked "all air and waterborne vessels in the
        area and conducted appropriate interviews. Yet the FBI did
        not dispute a report by Robert Davey, a Village Voice
        reporter, that radar in the area picked up four unidentified

        One of these, according to the NTSB was within three
        nautical miles of Flight 800 when it exploded. It's pattern
        was consistent with a surface vessel moving at 30 knots,
        the NTSB said. Perhaps most alarming was that the
        mysterious boat kept moving out to sea, even after the

        "He not only doesn't turn to render assistance, he runs,"
        said naval Cmdr. William Donaldson, who believes a navy
        missile downed the plane. correction by web site author: 
       [Cmdr Donaldson believes the aircraft was shot down by terrorists] 

        In early 1998, retired Adm. Thomas Moorer--- former
        Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--- added his name to
        the list of those who believe a missile destroyed the plane.
        Basing his judgment partly on an analysis of the
        flight-recorder data, Moorer and other former Navy brass
        expressed grave concerns. "All the evidence," Moorer said
        at a press conference, "would point to a missile."

        Montbs later, a former member of the NTSB, Vernon
        Grose, also publicly cast doubt on the investigation after
        seeing the flight recorder analysis.

        Last week, one of the investigation's own military
        engineers, a specialist in missile technology, told the
        Village Voice's Davey that he believes the plane was
        probably shot down by a missile and that the government
        is covering up the truth. The Voice gave the source
        anonymity because he feared losing his job.

        The entire investigation has seemed like an "X-Files"

        Streak of light

        And there's more. At the time of the crash, 270
        eyewitnesses across Long Island reported seeing a streak of
        light. After the FBI suspended the criminal investigation
        last year, Kallstrom, in an unprecedented move, asked the
        CIA to produce a videotaped explanation of the eyewitness
        accounts that specifically refutes the missile theory.

        At least one military pilot who saw the crash is
        unconvinced. National Guard helicopter pilot Frederick
        Meyer--- one of the closest eye-witnesses, who reported
        falling debris---rejects the CIA's animated recreation.
        Meyer described the event as "an ordnance explosion" And
        he ought to know what one looks like; the veteran pilot
        dodged missiles in Vietnam.

        Nearly 100 of the eyewitnesses said streak of light
        originated from the earth's surface.

        A puzzling pattern

        In researching the crash and investigation over the last two
        years, I've spoken with eyewitnesses, victims' families,
        conspiracy theorists, investigation officials and fellow
        journalists. I have reached the conclusion that these are not
        merely arbitrary anomalies emanation from a bunch of

        They add up to a preponderance of puzzling,
        unsubstantiated evidence that cries out for closer scrutiny
        and begs deeper questions:

        On what grounds was the FBI's criminal inquiry
        suspended---but not closed?

        Have the unidentified radar tracks--- especially the 30 knot
        track---been thoroughly investigated?

        If so, why haven't we been told anything about them?

        Kallstrom and others have focused on Salinger as the
        missile theory's straw man, denouncing him repeatedly and
        implying that TWA 800 conspiracy theorists are dominated
        by irresponsible, wild-eyed Internet users.

        Hardly. Most TWA 800 conspiracy theorists I've met are
        retired professionals with years of expertise in their fields
        of endeavor from journalism and education to engineering
        and aviation.

        Some victims' families skepticism would reopen a wound
        that is just beginning to heal.

        But proper scientific inquiry is not passive acceptance of
        ignorance; it is the relentless pursuit of truth. And the truth
        is what investigators---despite highly desirable conditions
        for an aviation disaster inquiry---have completely failed to

        Instead, they have asserted repeatedly that the cause may
        be "unknowable," implying that TWA 800 is doomed to
        being an unsolved mystery. It is not.

        I don't claim to know what happened to the 747. But I do
        know that the truth matters.

        It mattered to me and my parents July 17, 1996. It mattered
        more to the 230 crash victims. 

        And it ought to matter to the American public, which has
        spent well over $30 million for an utterly unacceptable
        outcome: shoulder-shrugging, ' not answers, in response to
        serious questions about the worst aviation disaster in U.S.

        Scott Holleran sholleran@earthlink.net) is a freelance
        writer in Southern California. He wrote this article for
        [The San Jose Mercury News] Perspective.

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