The Flight 800 Investigation
MISSILE FRAGMENT IS THEORY
A safety board official testifies that evidence in the crash of
TWA Flight 800 is consistent with that possibility.
By David E. Hendrix
and Stephen J. Siegel
March 12, 1997
The National Transportation Safety Board added a theory in the tangled
investigation of the TWA Flight 800 crash Tuesday while the agency's
investigators took their own samples from seats streaked with a red residue for
testing independent of the FBI.
A "missile fragment" could have been the culprit, Dr. Bernard Loeb told a House
subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C.
Loeb, director of the NTSB's office of aviation safety, told congressmen that
evidence did not support a conclusion that either a bomb or a missile triggered
the second-worst civilian air disaster. But he acknowledged the evidence was
consistent with the plane being struck by a "missile fragment," introducing
another theory in the nearly eight-month investigation.
Loeb did not elaborate on where a missile fragment might have come from and
members of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation did not press
Joe Valiquette, an FBI spokesman, said the fragment theory was part of the
overall missile review. "We don't volunteer everything," he said.
NTSB Chairman Jim Hall went to Capitol Hill Tuesday seeking $20.1 million in
supplemental funding to cover the cost of the TWA 800 investigation through the
end of the fiscal year, July 1. Officials estimate the total cost of the
nation's most extensive air crash investigation at $27 million.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., chairman of the subcommittee, opened what otherwise
would have been a routine congressional hearing by noting that "nagging"
questions remain about the crash.
He made reference to articles in The Press-Enterprise, then asked NTSB officials
to discuss the issues the story described.
The officials showed a videotape of efforts to reconstruct the Boeing 747, then
took issue with some elements of the story and offered alternate explanations
for some of its assertions.
The Press-Enterprise reported Monday that independent tests show some aircraft
seats in the destroyed TWA jet contained a residue consistent with solid fuel
propellant used in missiles.
The newspaper also reported that several independent analysts believe other
evidence, including the way in which debris fell into the ocean east of Long
Island, points to a missile attack.
Lawmakers said they would ensure NTSB gets the money it needs. "We want to give
you what you need to do the job," Wolf said.
But the Virginia Republican also asked the investigators repeatedly to answer
questions raised by The Press-Enterprise, lest the American people lose faith in
the government or the investigation.
"The credibility of the United States government could be tarnished if this
thing goes on much longer," he said.
"We are prepared to do anything else we need to do to ensure the credibility of
what we're doing," Hall said.
Rep. John Olver, D-Mass., also questioned the safety officials at one point. He
asked whether inferences about technical information contained in The
Press-Enterprise article were accurate.
Loeb responded that the reporter "can't possibly know," because the relevant
data has been in the hands of the NTSB since it was recovered.
But Olver was undeterred, and noted that the story contended that sources inside
the investigation had provided some information to the newspaper.
Back on Long Island, the NTSB was moved toward an independent analysis of the
fabric bearing the red residue mentioned in Press Enterprise articles Monday.
The NTSB went back to the wreckage debris in Calverton, N.Y., on Monday to take
its own samples from the reconstruction scene and test in its own labs, NTSB
spokesman Peter Goelz said Tuesday.
The investigation has been wracked by disputes between investigative agencies,
and some crash investigators believe the FBI has not been forthcoming with all
its information and tests.
"We are comfortable in saying our investigators reviewed the residue this fall
in the field and that it likely came from adhesives used to manufacture the
seat," Goelz said. "Those samples were turned over to the FBI.
"(Monday) we went up and retrieved more samples and we will examine them
ourselves but there's nothing to indicate that this material is anything more
than an adhesive," Goelz said. "My understanding is that the FBI has done its
The red residue contains elements consistent with solid fuel for missiles, but
James Kallstrom, the FBI's assistant director in charge of the investigation,
said the material was adhesive in the seats.
Loeb told the House subcommittee "There is a reddish orange substance that is on
virtually all the seats in the forward part of the airplane, and for that
matter, I am sure it is on virtually all of the seats in the airplane." FBI
spokesman Valiquette said his agency was not disturbed by the NTSB's decision to
test material on its own. Goelz said he did not know if the NTSB would publicly
release the test results, including the elements found.
Jim Sanders, a retired policeman-turned-writer, told The Press Enterprise
he acquired a sample of the seat from a source inside the investigation. He said
the residue and reviews of crash debris show a clear path through TWA 800's
The FBI and NTSB have said some of the facts and interpretations are in error in
stories The Press-Enterprise published Monday. Officials have refused to state
specifically what those facts and interpretations are but publicly have
disagreed about whether Sanders' lab results point to solid fuel and whether
there is a clear trail of red residue, as Kallstrom on Friday said there was.
TWA Flight 800 crashed off Long Island, N.Y., last July 17, killing all 230
people aboard in the second-most-deadly crash in U.S. aviation history.
Witnesses have reported seeing a missile-like object streaking toward the
aircraft before it burst into flames and exploded, but officials have yet to
indicate that the witnesses are correct.
This story appeared in The Press-
Enterprise Wednesday, March 12, 1997
Evidence of a Missile
Flight 800 Database
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