Out of the sky
Nelson DeMille’s fictional telling of the
Flight 800 crash story weaves in threads of conspiracy,
cover-up and illicit romance
BY AILEEN JACOBSON
November 23, 2004
It is a bright, chilly day in November and Nelson DeMille is
at the beach. He stands on Fire Island near the sleek black
granite memorial to the 230 victims of TWA Flight 800 and
points toward the horizon, where the steel-blue Atlantic
meets a cloud-puffed, powder-blue sky.
"That's about where the plane went down," says the author of
"The Gold Coast" and "The General's Daughter," now an expert
on the 1996 crash eight miles off the coast of Long Island.
Despite a lengthy government investigation, the downing of
Flight 800 is still a subject of controversy. Did the plane
blow up because of mechanical failure, as the official
investigation concluded, or because of friendly fire from
Navy maneuvers? Or was the crash caused by a missile
launched from below by terrorists, as suggested by a streak
of light shooting upward that was seen by more than 200
real-life eyewitnesses - and recorded on videotape
(fictionally) by two illicit lovers in DeMille's new novel,
An expected bestseller
The novel, which debuts this week with a million-copy first
printing, is based on the true story, presented - in terms
of basic facts - accurately. But DeMille's mystery mostly
focuses on his fictional hero's search for a wholly imagined
adulterous couple and their videotape.
The literary approach came to him long after Flight 800
first captured his imagination. The event had touched his
life from the moment it happened.
"This plane crashed on July 17, which was a Wednesday, and,
on the Sunday before, I put my daughter on the same flight,
TWA 800 to Paris, with a bunch of students going to Paris to
study," recalls DeMille, 61, who grew up in Elmont and lives
in Garden City. As on July 17, his daughter Lauren's flight
was late leaving, putting it over Long Island at a time when
an El Al flight was scheduled to be there.
DeMille also may have heard the explosion: "I was out on the
North Fork for the whole summer, writing 'Plum Island.' When
the plane crashed, I was on the back deck, and I think I
heard something, though I'm not quite sure." He thought it
could be fireworks, as did others who heard a boom. "I was
about 20 miles away, but it's not unusual for sound to
travel 20 miles - a sound like that," he adds.
"Then somebody called me and said, 'Did you hear about TWA
Flight 800?,' and it kind of made my heart stop," because
that was his daughter's flight. "I said, 'No, why?' and the
woman said, 'It just crashed.' I turned on Channel 12 news
and got early reports of a mid-air collision. A lot of the
early reports had to do with eyewitnesses seeing what they
described as a rocket or a missile rising from the water
right before the plane exploded. So it seemed everybody at
first was saying it was a terrorist attack."
He thought of writing the book a few years later, when he
was researching "The Lion's Game," his 2000 thriller about
Middle East terrorism (which presciently discusses the
possibility of terrorists using planes to attack the World
Trade Center). Several members of the federal Joint
Terrorism Task Force he interviewed told him, off the
record, that they had helped with the Flight 800
investigation and weren't satisfied with the final report's
conclusion of malfunction.
And neighbors of DeMille's in Garden City came to him, after
reading a media report that he was thinking of writing a
novel based on the incident, to say that they had been near
the site of the explosion in a boat and had seen a flash of
light before the crash.
Having people come forward is an "advantage of being a
bestselling novelist," says DeMille, who mentioned his
newest project in interviews. "I said what I was working on,
and a lot of TWA people and retired FBI people contacted me.
I used to have to go look for research sources, but now they
come and find me."
He did a lot of other research, too, reading government
documents, interviewing eyewitnesses and talking to FBI and
police investigators on the task force.
Writing this kind of "what if" book, says DeMille, is risky
because events, such as another terrorist attack or the
emergence of new evidence on Flight 800, can overtake it.
Philip Roth's current bestseller, "The Plot Against
America," which imagines Charles A. Lindbergh becoming
president in 1940, is "alternate history," DeMille says,
"but it's in the same vein, in that you're taking reality
and going off in a different direction with it."
His book's hero is John Corey, a former NYPD cop who is now
a member of the Anti-Terrorist Task Force (DeMille's
variation on the name, though he keeps it at its real
address, 26 Federal Plaza, 26th floor). The wise- cracking,
street-smart, anti-authoritarian Corey was also the hero of
"Plum Island" and "The Lion's Game." (He'll return in yet
another novel, the one after next, says DeMille, in a story
that wraps up events in "The Lion's Game.")
DeMille credits his son, Alex, who works in film, with
coming up with an idea to end "Night Fall" on Sept. 11,
2001, two months after the fifth anniversary of the crash,
when the fictional Corey first becomes interested in its
Corey gets involved in his own renegade investigation after
his wife, an FBI agent, takes him to a memorial service for
the victims' families. DeMille missed the real-life
ceremony, so he had to rely on descriptions in Newsday and
the New York Times, he says.
But he visited a Coast Guard station, the hangar where the
remains of the downed plane were reconstructed and the
Hamptons beaches and communities where he sets his novel.
DeMille also stopped by the memorial at Smith Point County
Park, with its landscaping of natural grasses and trellises
of silver cedar, and was visiting it again with a reporter.
There, on a curved black granite wall filled with the
victims' names, DeMille notes that of the pilot, Ralph G.
Kevorkian. Kevorkian, he says, was a friend of one of
DeMille's best friends, also a TWA pilot, who had flown the
same aircraft from Paris two days earlier. On a lower wall
that tells the story of the flight and of the monument,
DeMille notes that the text calls what happened to TWA
Flight 800 "an explosion of controversial origin."
John Seaman, the man who wrote the text, is the chairman of
the board of The Families of TWA Flight 800, the nonprofit
group that raised the money to build and maintain the
memorial. He's at the park this day overseeing expansion
plans and seawall work to prevent erosion from damaging the
His phrase carved in stone, Seaman says, was carefully
chosen, reflecting "something all the families took comfort
from. ... I just left it at that, not a bomb or this or
that." Seaman, who lost his 19-year-old niece and godchild,
Michele Becker, in the crash, says the catastrophe produced
a stream of books and TV shows. New information continues to
emerge, such as recent reports, uncovered through the
Freedom of Information Act, that various terrorist groups
have taken credit for the explosion.
"It's still a mystery," says Seaman, 55. Could DeMille's
book, which he hadn't seen, be controversial? "Other things
written or filmed about Flight 800 have been viewed
differently by different family members," he says. "Some
people have suggested no one should talk about it, that it's
hurtful. But most recognize that it's a mystery that will
never be solved to everyone's satisfaction."
He continues: "If there was strong evidence to believe it
was a deliberate act, we would all be consumed with trying
to find out who is responsible, and that could take years
and years. ... We would feel that person should be caught
and brought to justice."
Several citizen groups have continued efforts to shed more
light on the crash, including Flight 800 Independent
Researchers Organization, formed in 1999 and headed by Tom
Stalcup, a physicist who owns a small electronics company in
Falmouth, Mass. With 40 members, including scientists and
former crash investigators, the organization gets a
respectful mention in DeMille's book.
One who doubts
Stalcup, 34, says he was a graduate student in Florida when
he watched television reports and became skeptical about the
government's investigation, especially an animated version
of the crash (also referred to in the novel) that explains
the upward flash of light reported by many witnesses as an
optical illusion that occurred after the explosion rather
than before it.
His group is suing in federal court for evidence of foreign
objects in victims' bodies that it believes has been
withheld. He's received e-mails, he says, from about a dozen
people who believe the flash of light was captured on a
videotape shown one time, on one channel, right after the
crash, before disappearing. "I don't know if someone is
trying to get us off the track," he says of that story.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which issued its
final report in 2000, isn't planning to back down, says
spokeswoman Lauren Peduzzi. "We're always open to new
scientific information, but at this time we haven't received
any. I don't know how much help we can be on a fictional
report," she says, referring to DeMille's novel. There have
been at least three other fuel tank explosions since Flight
800 went down, she adds. (The most recent ripped apart a
Thai Airways Boeing 737 in March 2001.)
"We won't speak to the theories," says Peduzzi. "We did an
exhaustive scientific investigation" that started in
conjunction with the FBI's task force. "Once they found no
evidence of criminal activity, they backed off."
But the questioners of the FBI haven't, and at least one
welcomes DeMille's novel. Mark L. Berry, a member of
Stalcup's group and an airline pilot who once worked for TWA
and who lost his fiance on Flight 800, writes via e-mail
that he thinks DeMille "is the perfect author (based on the
style of his books that I have read) to bring renewed
interest in TWA 800 through an exciting novel that hints at
a deeper truth buried in his fictitious tale."
Will families be troubled?
Stalcup says he thinks some family members may be offended
by DeMille's book, which he hadn't yet seen, "and some of
the officials in the government may be upset that this is
getting attention again. I think they just want it to go
CIA operatives may be mollified by DeMille's next book,
which he says will reverse the contempt "Night Fall" shows
for them. It will be about a suave CIA agent, an American
James Bond-type, he says, who will pursue a terrorist plot
to use an atomic bomb on an American city.
DeMille says he thinks family members will look on his
Flight 800 book favorably, though he understands many "would
like to believe it was an accident." He also doesn't want to
be seen as a "conspiracy nut," he adds. He's not convinced
his own version of events (minus the steamy videotape and
adulterous couple) is correct, but he does believe many
questions went unanswered in the official conclusion. He's
ready to let readers decide.
Copyright © 2004,
© 2001, 2002, 2003 & 2004
Robert E. Donaldson. All