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Tanks unaltered 11 years after Flight 800

BY LAURA RIVERA
laura.rivera@newsday.com

July 17, 2007

Jim Hurd II crouched among the petunias and wispy pennisetum grasses at the TWA Flight 800 memorial yesterday, trying to fix broken lights for tonight's prayer service.

Since his son, Jamie Hurd III, died on the flight on July 17, 1996, Hurd, 62, travels to Smith Point Beach each July on the anniversary of the crash from his home in Severn, Md. During much of the rest of the year, he urges airline industry groups to outfit airplanes with a device that would have prevented the explosion that killed his son.

Yet 11 years after the center fuel tank of TWA Flight 800 caught fire, killing 230 people, the Federal Aviation Administration still does not require commercial jetliners to carry devices to make the fuel in their tanks inert, and Hurd is angry about it.

"It's like they're waiting for another fuel tank to explode before they act," said Hurd, vice president of the Families of TWA Flight 800 Association. "It's unacceptable at this point."

Before the TWA catastrophe, the deadliest of 17 incidents involving an airplane fuel tank explosion since 1960, the FAA had targeted sources of ignitions like faulty wires in its efforts to prevent such fires.

But in a set of regulations proposed in November 2005, the FAA acknowledged that it was "unlikely ever to identify and eradicate all possible sources of ignition." The proposed rules also said that to lower the chances of a fuel tank fire, about 3,800 jetliners registered in the United States should be retrofitted with systems to make fuel tanks inert.

Airline industry trade groups balked at the projected cost - at least $532 million, based on FAA estimates - and questioned the FAA's prediction that as many as nine jetliners were likely to be destroyed by a fuel tank explosion in the next 50 years. There has not been a fuel tank explosion since Flight 800.

"We've eliminated the ignition sources," said Basil Barimo, the Air Transport Association's vice president of safety and operations. "They made projections based on conditions that have since changed," he said, adding that safer jet fuel and pumping practices had reduced fuel tank flammability.

Cutting the oxygen in tanks from 21 percent, the amount in air, to 12 percent would prevent combustion, said Bill Cavage, fuel tank safety project manager of the FAA fire safety research program.

Cavage said most current devices trade the oxygen inside tanks with nitrogen. Last May, he also tested a machine that uses a catalytic converter to convert fuel vapors into water and carbon dioxide.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) last month introduced a bill requiring the FAA to implement the proposed regulations by Jan. 1.

"The government got a man on the moon in 10 years," said John Seaman, president of the Families of TWA Flight 800 Association. "It's been 11 years, and they can't even decide to fix the tanks."
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