May 14, 2000

      Tin Kickers 

          A journalist explores the controversy over the crash of TWA Flight 800. 


          More than halfway through ''Deadly Departure'' there is a
          clash, one of many, between some F.B.I. agents and an investigator
          from the National Transportation Safety  Board. The men are standing in the Long
          Island hangar where the remains of a shattered Boeing 747 -- the aircraft that
          was once TWA Flight 800 -- are being painstakingly reconstructed. The safety
          board investigator is trying to convince the agents that a giant hole in a metal
          beam was caused by a fuel-tank explosion and not, as the F.B.I. suspects,
          by a terrorist's missile: I don't know why you guys want to worry about things we
          can identify, the safety board man says.  It's normal. Normal? one of the agents
          replies. None of this is normal. Airplanes don't break up like this. 

          The exchange, which has the ring of disaster-movie dialogue, is at the 
          heart of the book's effect. Anyone who boards a commercial airliner 
          does so with the assumption that airplanes don't just fall out of the sky 
          without warning. The chilling message of the Flight 800 disaster, as 
          reported by Christine Negroni, a television journalist who covered 
          aviation for CNN, is that, sometimes, they do. 

          ''Deadly Departure'' is a well-written, well-researched chronicle of events
          surrounding the crash of Flight 800. The crash made headlines, not only
          for the magnitude of the disaster but because some witnesses claimed to
          have seen a missile strike the airliner. Flight 800 quickly became a focus
          of conspiracy theorists, some of whom blamed ''friendly fire.'' Others
          concluded a bomb had been smuggled aboard. In a sense, the midair
          explosion on July 16, 1996, which killed 230 people, was a kind of
          national Rorschach test. Little more than a year after the Oklahoma City
          bombing, Americans felt vulnerable to terrorism, and fewer than two
          weeks after the TWA crash a bomb went off at the Olympic Games in
          Atlanta. There was a certain logic behind the idea that terrorists had
          managed to take down an American airplane, not in some distant
          country, but over American soil. 

          As Negroni points out, the sometimes chaotic way in which the
          authorities disseminated information didn't help. Confusion and conflict
          often reigned behind the scenes, where investigators and politicians
          wrestled with TWA representatives, and each other, for information and
          for control. The ''tin kickers,'' as the transportation safety board's aviation
          detectives are known, distrusted the secretive ways of the F.B.I. agents
          assigned to the case; the F.B.I. men considered their aviation
          counterparts nave. The victims' families were caught in the middle. 

          Negroni describes with terrifying detail the horrors that must have been
          experienced by the passengers as the plane disintegrated around them at
          an altitude of two and a half miles. Many, burned and torn apart, were
          killed instantly; they, she says, ''were the lucky ones.'' Their relatives lived
          for weeks in a Long Island hotel while waiting for their loved ones'
          remains to be identified. To forensic specialists the delays, while
          regrettable, made sense; pressure to release the bodies was at odds with
          the need to conduct a thorough investigation. Meanwhile, the missile
          theory gained publicity and support, most visibly from Pierre Salinger, the
          press secretary for President John F. Kennedy, on talk shows and the
          Internet. Negroni quickly disposes of it, however. What the missile
          theorists call the most persuasive piece of evidence -- radar data from a
          ground tracking station supposedly showing a projectile striking the plane
          -- turns out to be, in the words of one specialist, ''twinkles that pop up
          and go away'' like snow on a television set. 

          While this drama plays on without, the tin kickers go about their business
          within -- quite literally. We accompany them into the bowels of the 747's
          living-room-size center fuel tank, where they search for clues to the
          source of the explosion. By this time, weeks after the crash, they have
          come to believe that something created a tiny spark -- so small that you
          would not have felt it on your skin -- inside the near-empty tank, igniting
          a volatile mixture of air and fuel vapors. But tests on one suspicious
          component after another fail to yield answers. The black boxes, the
          onboard data and voice recorders recovered from the ocean floor, are
          maddeningly vague. 

          As the investigation drags on, first one year, then two, the tin kickers are
          still searching for a source of ignition. Finally, a likely culprit emerges: the
          insulation on some of the wiring used in Boeing airplanes is faulty, a fact
          that one industry gadfly has been warning about for years. The insulation
          is prone to decay, and can cause faulty instrument readings -- an
          onboard fuel gauge behaved erratically minutes before the crash -- or
          sparks. We also learn that Boeing has used the center fuel tanks of its
          airplanes as heat absorbers for the air-conditioning units located directly
          below. This disclosure stuns the investigators: the higher the temperature
          of a fuel-air mixture, the more flammable it is. The Federal Aviation
          Administration recognized this last flaw, more than three years after the
          Flight 800 disaster, when it ordered a review of fuel-tank design on
          commercial aircraft. ''With so much at stake, Boeing will try to influence
          the process every step of the way,'' Negroni says. ''Some charge it
          already has.'' 

          What is even more shocking, as Negroni relates the history of the 747, is
          that these risks were recognized at the time the airplane was being
          designed in the late 1960's. Engineers considered various systems to
          reduce flammability inside fuel tanks. ''Deadly Departure'' leaves the
          strong impression that Boeing weighed the issue as a cost-benefit matter:
          installing and maintaining such a system for 10 years was deemed more
          expensive than the number of fatal accidents expected in the same
          amount of time. 

          Negroni presents this as an example of appalling cynicism on the part of
          Boeing executives, and in that light it seems more chilling than any
          terrorist plot. But there is another view, one that recognizes that each of
          us accepts far greater risk getting into our cars than boarding an airplane.
          Statistically, air travel is far safer than it seems from the story of Flight
          800. What Negroni so compellingly reminds us is that statistics are no
          comfort to those whose lives are forever changed by an airplane
          accident. And that if we choose to take risks, we must take them with
          our eyes open. 

          Andrew Chaikin is executive editor for space and science at
, a Web site about space. 

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