The New York  Observer

 Radar Shows 'Getaway Boat' Fleeing Flight 800 Crash

 by Philip Weiss

 The third anniversary of the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 is
 July 17, so it's a good time to look into what even the Government
 reluctantly concedes is a mystery about the crash: "the 30-knot track."
 The 30-knot track is the radar trail of a boat that was the closest
 vessel to the 747 when it exploded and that then headed out to sea on a
 beeline from right under the burning wreckage.

 "That boat is extremely suspect," said William S. Donaldson, a retired
 Navy commander who supports the missile theory of the plane's
 destruction. "He not only doesn't turn to render assistance, he runs."

 "It's like the getaway car," said Graeme Sephton, an electrical engineer
 who is active in an Internet researchers organization that is highly
 critical of the Federal investigation.

 The Government doesn't think the unidentified boat is such a big deal.
 "It does not intrigue me," said Peter Goelz, the National Transportation
 Safety Board managing director. F.B.I. spokesman Joseph Valiquette
 added, "In an ideal world, it would be nice to know everything, but I
 don't think the F.B.I. or the N.T.S.B. claims to know everything that
 happened in the crash."

 This is a convenient position for the F.B.I. to adopt now. The most
 unsettling thing about the 30-knot track is that the F.B.I. essentially
 suppressed knowledge of it when the crash was foremost on the public
 agenda. Two years ago, the F.B.I. closed its criminal investigation into
 the crash, and James Kallstrom, then the lead F.B.I. investigator,
 testified before Congress that the agency's "exhaustive" efforts had
 included "tracking of all air and waterborne vessels in the area at the
 time of the explosion followed by appropriate interviews."

 Mr. Kallstrom later held a lengthy press conference saying that agents
 had "left no stone unturned." He went into great detail about suspicious

 "Who is there in the water? Who could be escaping in any direction?" he
 said. "We identified 371 vessels in the Long Island area and did
 investigation on those vessels. For the one-month period, we identified
 20,000 records of vessels that entered New York Harbor and did an
 investigation of those vessels." The F.B.I. even seized some boats to
 inspect the flooring for burns characteristic of backfire from a
 shoulder-fired rocket.

 Mr. Kallstrom's press conference was aimed at discrediting the missile
 theory, and it worked. In an editorial titled "Conspiracy Inoculation,"
 The New York Times congratulated him for an "extraordinary" performance.
 The F.B.I. had shared its "voluminous evidence" with "admirable
 thoroughness and openness."

 The closing of the criminal investigation allowed the N.T.S.B. to hold
 hearings on the crash, one month later, where it offered hundreds of
 exhibits, a few of which depicted a "30-knot track" 10 miles out in the
 Atlantic. Radar data collected during the last minute of the T.W.A.
 flight revealed the two closest objects to the plane, both between three
 and four miles away, as a Navy P-3 airplane and what the exhibit called
 simply a "30-knot target." Radar data for the next 20 minutes showed the
 mystery boat heading on a beeline out to sea, on a south-southwest
 course, even as other boats rushed to the crash to try to help out. It
 was nearly 9 o'clock at night, not the usual time for an excursion.

 "I looked at that and said, 'Wow, what is that guy doing leaving the
 scene?'" Commander Donaldson said. "And of course I assumed he was

 Commander Donaldson called Steve Bongardt, an F.B.I. agent and fellow
 Navy veteran who was active in the investigation. "It was a
 pilot-to-pilot exchange," Commander Donaldson said. "I said, I want you
 to tell me if you have a 302 [interview] form for every single boat out
 there. He said, 'I can't answer that question without higher authority.'
 I said, 'Steve, you have answered the question.'"

 Commander Donaldson was then working closely with Representative James
 Traficant Jr., Democrat of Ohio, who was looking into the investigation
 for the House Aviation Subcommittee, and at the commander's prompting,
 Mr. Traficant sent a list of questions to the F.B.I. One asked if the
 F.B.I. has "been able to positively identify every single aircraft and
 surface vessel that was in the proximity of T.W.A. Flight 800 at the
 time of the accident."

 It took more than three months, but in July 1998 an acting assistant
 director answered the Representative: No. Lewis Schiliro acknowledged
 the presence of the mystery boat, which he said was at least 25 to 30
 feet long and reached speeds of 35 knots, close to 40 miles per hour.
 "Despite extensive efforts, the F.B.I. has been unable to identify this
 vessel," he said.

 The response is somewhat alarming given the F.B.I.'s assurances that it
 had turned over every stone-and given the fact that many eyewitnesses on
 Long Island said they had seen a flarelike object streak up from the
 horizon before the explosion in the air. Yet the speeding mystery boat
 goes unmentioned in the mainstream press.

 I first learned about it in a scientific report on "anomalies" in the
 Government investigation that has been widely circulated on the Net. "I
 show this data to physicists and their jaws drop," said the report's
 author, Thomas Stalcup, a graduate student in physics at Florida State
 University who heads an Internet group of 40 people with a technical
 background, called Flight 800 Independent Researchers' Organization, or

 Mr. Sephton, a F.I.R.O. member, said, "It's really weird that there are
 no eyewitnesses reporting from that vessel. These are the people who are
 pulling out from under the flaming debris, and none of them calls the
 800 number that is set up by the F.B.I."

 The N.T.S.B.'s Mr. Goelz disputes the suggestion that the boat was

 "It's perfectly reasonable to assume, because they were on a direct
 course and the explosion didn't occur in front of them, that they didn't
 see it," he said. Given the boat's speed, those on board may have heard
 nothing over the engine noise.

 "They would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to have seen something,"
 Mr. Sephton said. Commander Donaldson pointed out that the explosion was
 "a huge physical event" that filled the night sky behind the boat with a
 curtain of burning fuel. "It would be like having the sun come up at
 midnight right behind you," he said. "You would feel heat on the back of
 your neck. And you're going to feel the concussion. The explosion
 rattled windows on the beach 10 miles away."

 It would seem that even the F.B.I. secretly regarded the 30-knot track
 as suspicious. For six months, the Government conducted a $5.5 million
 trawling operation of the waters surrounding the crash, using scallop
 boats. Commander Donaldson has obtained documents left by the F.B.I. on
 one scalloper, showing that the F.B.I. was specifically looking for
 shoulder-fired Stinger missile parts-notably a Stinger ejector motor-in
 what the F.B.I. called a "possible missile launch zone" 2.7 miles from
 the crash. That circle included the mystery boat.

 "If it's a legitimate criminal investigation, with a possibility of 230
 homicides, how do you close the investigation when you haven't
 identified the boat that was within missile firing range?" said
 Commander Donaldson, who investigated a dozen crashes in the Navy. "To
 me that's egregious. I don't see how you justify it."

 An aide to Representative Traficant said the F.B.I. and N.T.S.B. should
 have been more open about the mystery boat. Paul Marcone said,
 "Kallstrom should have come out and said, Here are some things we
 haven't been able to explain."

 Now an executive with the banking company MBNA, Mr. Kallstrom said he
 had no intention of misleading anyone at his press conference. "I wish I
 knew who it was," he said of the 30-knot track. But there are always
 loose ends in any investigation, and mentioning them is not helpful: "If
 you say you're 99.9 percent sure, people think you're opening the door,
 or that you're playing games."

 Representative Traficant's report concluded there was no Government
 cover-up. Such a conspiracy would have required hundreds of
 participants, Mr. Marcone reasons. He interviewed 40 or 50 investigators
 and they all struck him as sincere. If there had been a cover-up, he
 added, "Why would the F.B.I. admit to a U.S. Congressman that they
 couldn't identify the 30-knot track?"

 Commander Donaldson said a cover-up wouldn't require those numbers.
 Tasks in the Flight 800 investigation were parceled out amid an air of
 state secrecy, with pre-emptive suggestions from on high that the
 Government had found no evidence of a missile. In this climate,
 individual teams' reports could be honest and insufficient, because
 technicians were not in a position to put what they had seen together
 with other evidence.

 For instance, the N.T.S.B. held public hearings on the crash, but
 refused to allow eyewitnesses to testify about what they'd seen.
 Meantime, the F.B.I. presented a C.I.A. animation of the plane's breakup
 that purported to explain what the eyewitnesses had seen, and merely
 infuriated them.

 It's not hard to imagine ways this investigation could have become
 politicized. The Atlanta Olympics were to start days after the crash. A
 leading terrorist was then on trial in New York. There were threats;
 three weeks before, an apartment complex in Saudi Arabia had been
 bombed, killing 19 American servicemen. And it was election year for an
 administration that has shown it will do just about anything to win.
 What if voters saw the country as being vulnerable to terrorists?

 The N.T.S.B. likes to point out that Commander Donaldson is a
 right-winger, funded by Accuracy in Media. Yes, and Mr. Stalcup and Mr.
 Sephton are lefties. They have lately obtained more radar data which
 they say challenges the Government findings.

 The real distinction here is between the old hierarchical information
 order and the new one. For some time now, the mainstream media has been
 able to write off Internet investigators as ill-trained, people who are
 unable to sort out rumor from fact, and, when they do have facts, have
 no sense of their proportion. This criticism has often been true, but
 the Internet gets less hysterical one month to the next, and meantime
 the mainstream media have found themselves in an odd position. They are
 corporate authorities, who tend to accept the word of other authorities
 at face value. They don't seem to see the revolution at the door: The
 Internet is a growing society of people who are comfortable challenging

 "You're focusing on minutiae," the N.T.S.B.'s Mr. Goelz said to me.
 "Ninety-five percent of the wreckage of the plane has been recovered and
 it shows no missile."

 "Let's see," Commander Donaldson said, getting out a calculator. "Five
 percent of the wreckage is 8 tons. You can put a lot of holes in that
 much stuff. It's like saying the Empire State Building fell over and
 we've found all but five floors."