|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
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
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
Navy commander who supports the missile theory of the plane's
destruction. "He not only doesn't turn to render assistance,
"It's like the getaway car," said Graeme Sephton, an electrical
who is active in an Internet researchers organization that is
critical of the Federal investigation.
The Government doesn't think the unidentified boat is such a big
"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,
don't think the F.B.I. or the N.T.S.B. claims to know everything
happened in the crash."
This is a convenient position for the F.B.I. to adopt now. The
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
agenda. Two years ago, the F.B.I. closed its criminal investigation
the crash, and James Kallstrom, then the lead F.B.I. investigator,
testified before Congress that the agency's "exhaustive" efforts
included "tracking of all air and waterborne vessels in the area
time of the explosion followed by appropriate interviews."
Mr. Kallstrom later held a lengthy press conference saying that
had "left no stone unturned." He went into great detail about
"Who is there in the water? Who could be escaping in any direction?"
said. "We identified 371 vessels in the Long Island area and
investigation on those vessels. For the one-month period, we
20,000 records of vessels that entered New York Harbor and did
investigation of those vessels." The F.B.I. even seized some
inspect the flooring for burns characteristic of backfire from
Mr. Kallstrom's press conference was aimed at discrediting the
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.
hearings on the crash, one month later, where it offered hundreds
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
flight revealed the two closest objects to the plane, both between
and four miles away, as a Navy P-3 airplane and what the exhibit
simply a "30-knot target." Radar data for the next 20 minutes
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
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
scene?'" Commander Donaldson said. "And of course I assumed he
Commander Donaldson called Steve Bongardt, an F.B.I. agent and
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
there. He said, 'I can't answer that question without higher
I said, 'Steve, you have answered the question.'"
Commander Donaldson was then working closely with Representative
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
F.B.I. has "been able to positively identify every single aircraft
surface vessel that was in the proximity of T.W.A. Flight 800
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
"Despite extensive efforts, the F.B.I. has been unable to identify
vessel," he said.
The response is somewhat alarming given the F.B.I.'s assurances
had turned over every stone-and given the fact that many eyewitnesses
Long Island said they had seen a flarelike object streak up from
horizon before the explosion in the air. Yet the speeding mystery
goes unmentioned in the mainstream press.
I first learned about it in a scientific report on "anomalies"
Government investigation that has been widely circulated on the
show this data to physicists and their jaws drop," said the report's
author, Thomas Stalcup, a graduate student in physics at Florida
University who heads an Internet group of 40 people with a technical
background, called Flight 800 Independent Researchers' Organization,
Mr. Sephton, a F.I.R.O. member, said, "It's really weird that
no eyewitnesses reporting from that vessel. These are the people
pulling out from under the flaming debris, and none of them calls
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
"It's perfectly reasonable to assume, because they were on a direct
course and the explosion didn't occur in front of them, that
see it," he said. Given the boat's speed, those on board may
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
"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
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
as suspicious. For six months, the Government conducted a $5.5
trawling operation of the waters surrounding the crash, using
boats. Commander Donaldson has obtained documents left by the
one scalloper, showing that the F.B.I. was specifically looking
shoulder-fired Stinger missile parts-notably a Stinger ejector
what the F.B.I. called a "possible missile launch zone" 2.7 miles
the crash. That circle included the mystery boat.
"If it's a legitimate criminal investigation, with a possibility
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
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.
have been more open about the mystery boat. Paul Marcone said,
"Kallstrom should have come out and said, Here are some things
haven't been able to explain."
Now an executive with the banking company MBNA, Mr. Kallstrom
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
loose ends in any investigation, and mentioning them is not helpful:
you say you're 99.9 percent sure, people think you're opening
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,
added, "Why would the F.B.I. admit to a U.S. Congressman that
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
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
with other evidence.
For instance, the N.T.S.B. held public hearings on the crash,
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
that purported to explain what the eyewitnesses had seen, and
It's not hard to imagine ways this investigation could have become
politicized. The Atlanta Olympics were to start days after the
leading terrorist was then on trial in New York. There were threats;
three weeks before, an apartment complex in Saudi Arabia had
bombed, killing 19 American servicemen. And it was election year
administration that has shown it will do just about anything
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
Sephton are lefties. They have lately obtained more radar data
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
able to write off Internet investigators as ill-trained, people
unable to sort out rumor from fact, and, when they do have facts,
no sense of their proportion. This criticism has often been true,
the Internet gets less hysterical one month to the next, and
the mainstream media have found themselves in an odd position.
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:
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
"Ninety-five percent of the wreckage of the plane has been recovered
it shows no missile."
"Let's see," Commander Donaldson said, getting out a calculator.
percent of the wreckage is 8 tons. You can put a lot of holes
much stuff. It's like saying the Empire State Building fell over
we've found all but five floors."
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