Boeing role in probes of crashes scrutinized 

                                         by James V. Grimaldi 
                                    Seattle Times Washington bureau 

                                    WASHINGTON - Since the dawn of civil aviation, crashes in the
                                    United States have been investigated with the help of the regulator
                                    and the regulated - agencies such as the Federal Aviation
                                    Administration (FAA) and companies such as Boeing. 

                                    But as Boeing joins what's expected to be another long and
                                    arduous crash investigation into EgyptAir Flight 990, fresh
                                    questions are arising about the Seattle aerospace company's role
                                    in previous crash inquiries. 

                                    In a harsh rebuke of Boeing, National Transportation Safety
                                    Board (NTSB) Chairman Jim Hall last week criticized the
                                    company's corporate culture and its "statistical" approach to
                                    aviation safety. 

                                    A day later, a U.S. Senator senator blasted the company for not
                                    forwarding to crash investigators an important scientific study. 

                                    And at the end of the week, Boeing continued a quiet pursuit of
                                    far-fetched theories in another crash, the downing of TWA Flight
                                    800 three years ago. 

                                    While totally unrelated to the EgyptAir crash, Boeing-hired
                                    scientists scoured the debris searching for evidence that a bomb
                                    or missile brought down the Boeing 747, though FBI and NTSB
                                    investigators have long ruled out sabotage as a cause. 

                                    While some critics had accused Boeing of quietly pushing a
                                    bomb-and-missile theory, the tests and court records reveal for
                                    the first time evidence that Boeing has actually refused to rule out
                                    a bomb or missile in the July 1996 TWA crash. 

                                    Boeing's seemingly conflicting role - as a key participant in crash
                                    probes and a manufacturer fending off liability claims - was
                                    examined in a study of crash investigations by the Rand Corp., a
                                    California-based think tank. 

                                    The study, commissioned by the NTSB and expected to be
                                    turned over to the safety board in the next two weeks, will
                                    propose an overhaul of crash investigations, according to people
                                    familiar with its findings. 

                                    While still endorsing Boeing's participation in crash investigations,
                                    Rand is prepared to outline safeguards to prevent manufacturers
                                    from using their investigative role to slow or confuse crash

                                    In particular, Rand is expected to propose that manufacturers be
                                    kept at an arm's length from certain scientific studies to ensure the
                                    independence and integrity of investigations. 

                                    Boeing engineers are again playing a critical role as the
                                    investigation into the fate of EgyptAir Flight 990, a Boeing 767
                                    jetliner, gets under way in Rhode Island. The jet plummeted into
                                    the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Nantucket, Mass., one week
                                    ago, killing all 217 aboard. 

                                    At the same time last week, Boeing was continuing to pursue
                                    evidence of foul play in the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off
                                    Long Island, N.Y. Two years after the FBI and federal aviation
                                    investigators ruled out a bomb or missile in that crash, Boeing has
                                    refused to abandon the sabotage theory. Safety officials have
                                    concluded that the jet's center fuel tank exploded but have yet to
                                    identify the ignition source. 

                                    On Wednesday, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, revealed a
                                    General Accounting Office (GAO) report showing that Boeing for
                                    three years failed to share with Flight 800 investigators a scientific
                                    study that could have helped determine the cause of the TWA

                                    Boeing's refusal to eliminate a bomb or missile as a cause of that
                                    earlier crash is a strategy that appears to be coming largely from
                                    company attorneys, including those at the Seattle firm Perkins
                                    Coie, which is defending Boeing in a lawsuit filed by family
                                    members who lost loved ones in TWA Flight 800. While that case
                                    is pending, several other families have settled their cases. 

                                    But the legal message also is being echoed by Boeing's top
                                    official, Chairman Phil Condit, who told The Seattle Times last
                                    week that the bomb-or-missile theory "is improbable at this point.
                                    But until you find a probable cause, you are never sure." 

                                    Grassley, the Iowa senator who has been looking into the flaws in
                                    the investigation of Flight 800, said Boeing could be inviting
                                    ridicule by trying to disprove the NTSB, the FBI, the Bureau of
                                    Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and others who rejected bomb
                                    and missile theories. 

                                    "How can you argue with four government agencies?" Grassley
                                    asked. "I don't think they enhance their own public relations if they
                                    continue to pursue the missile or bomb theory." 

                                    Among the ways Boeing is actively chasing a bomb or missile
                                    theory in the TWA crash: 

                                    At the demand of Boeing attorneys, chemical and metallurgical
                                    tests were conducted Thursday to scrutinize Flight 800 wreckage
                                    in search of microscopic remnants of a bomb, a missile or
                                    shrapnel, according to people familiar with the tests. 

                                    In the past few months, Boeing has been reviewing FBI interviews
                                    with witnesses, many of whom claimed that they saw a sliver of
                                    light streaking toward the aircraft before it exploded. FBI and
                                    Central Intelligence Agency analyses discounted the sightings as

                                    For the past year, Boeing also has refused in court records to rule
                                    out a bomb, air-to-air missile, surface-to-air missile or improvised
                                    explosive device in the July 1996 crash in which 230 people died.

                                    And, as part of a legal strategy to defend against a Flight 800
                                    lawsuit, Boeing has continued forwarding a theory first posed to
                                    the NTSB: that a missile exploded outside the 747 and a flaming
                                    fragment pierced the fuselage and ignited the center fuel tank. 

                                    "What we're doing is analyzing the available information to
                                    determine what defenses are appropriate," Boeing General
                                    Counsel Ted Collins said. "We haven't reached any conclusions.
                                    We aren't going to advance a defense that doesn't make any
                                    sense. We are trying to find out what happened." 

                                    The NTSB has determined that the plane's center fuel tank blew
                                    up but has not found what sparked the blast. After an exhaustive
                                    investigation, the FBI two years ago ruled out a missile or a bomb
                                    as the ignition source. The NTSB does not believe Boeing's test
                                    Thursday will change that conclusion. Instead, faulty wiring in a
                                    fuel-measuring system remains among the prime suspects. 

                                    Indeed, in recent months the FBI has fielded criticism that the time
                                    taken to rule out a criminal cause delayed fixing the design flaw
                                    the NTSB identified in the crash. 

                                    And for more than a year now, federal investigators have
                                    repeatedly tamped down bomb-and-missile suggestions as the
                                    work of paranoid conspiracy theorists unwilling to face hard facts.
                                    Some theories postulate that a Navy missile was at fault and allege
                                    a government cover-up. 

                                    Steve Pounian, a New York attorney representing families suing
                                    Boeing over the crash, predicted Boeing's aggressive pursuit of a
                                    missile theory would eventually backfire. 

                                    "You wonder how long they can keep saying that (it might have
                                    been a missile) while they are a major contractor of the
                                    government," Pounian said. "I can't believe they are going to say it
                                    is a Navy missile. How they can say that with a straight face and
                                    sell government contracts?" 

                                    Boeing's lawyers are unwilling to go as far as to say a bomb or
                                    missile is improbable. The only cause the company is legally
                                    willing to categorize as unlikely - at this time - is a meteorite. 

                                    "Until such time as a cause is determined, a missile of any type
                                    cannot be ruled out as a possible cause," Steven Bell, a Perkins
                                    Coie attorney Boeing, wrote in a court document as part of a
                                    Flight 800 lawsuit. 

                                    Boeing spokesman Russ Young said it is not up to Boeing to rule
                                    anything out. 

                                    "The NTSB seems to have crossed off various theories, but there
                                    has been no `Eureka!' discovery," Young said. "We don't cross
                                    off theories. The NTSB investigates the accident." 

                                    Boeing this week also came under fire for not giving Flight 800
                                    investigators until this summer a 16-year-old report that could
                                    have provided a crucial clue in the early days of the crash, when
                                    federal authorities still hadn't ruled out foul play. 

                                    While Boeing initially told the FBI that the center fuel tank was
                                    rarely in a highly flammable or near-explosive state, the 1980
                                    study provided powerful evidence to the contrary. 

                                    The existence of the study was made public by criminal
                                    investigators at the GAO as part of the probe launched by
                                    Grassley's Senate Judiciary Committee panel. 

                                    Boeing denied that the delay in giving the report to the NTSB was
                                    deliberate and instead blamed a miscommunication between the
                                    company's commercial-airplane division and the military division.
                                    The NTSB was informed about the report in March and it was
                                    given to the board in June only after Grassley intervened. 

                                    The failure to turn it over sooner, Boeing told GAO investigators,
                                    was due to a faulty computer database search. The Boeing
                                    officials said they put the wrong key words into the search. The
                                    report's title is "Center Wing Tank Fuel Heating Study."
                                    Apparently, Boeing didn't search for any of those words. 

                                    James Kallstrom, the chief FBI agent blamed for allowing the
                                    criminal probe to continue for so long, has now turned the tables
                                    on the NTSB, criticizing the aviation investigators for not yet
                                    issuing its probable cause. 

                                    "Is Boeing running the investigation or is the NTSB?" asked James
                                    Kallstrom, the former assistant FBI director who ran the Flight
                                    800 investigation. "Who's running the investigation? I point out
                                    that the whole thing itself, the party system, has a built-in conflict
                                    of interest." 

                                    But the safety board staunchly defends the "party system" - under
                                    which representatives from manufacturers, airlines and the pilots
                                    association, among others, take part in the investigation - as the
                                    most economical and sensible way to solve a crash. 

                                    Even if it comes accompanied by problems, officials are
                                    convinced it is the best way and simply requires precautions and
                                    skepticism to watch for biased information. 

                                    For nearly 12 hours Thursday, tests were conducted on part of
                                    the Flight 800 fuel tank to search for soot, metallic debris, paint or
                                    any other surface deposits and analysis will begin to determine
                                    their potential source. 

                                    The NTSB reluctantly approved the examination requested by
                                    Boeing. The tests, being performed by Chantilly, Va.,-based AR
                                    Tech Testing, will analyze the wreckage with scanning electron
                                    microscopes and other sophisticated devices to look for fractures.
                                    A separate test on a pump was conducted for the plaintiffs in the

                                    Boeing's stance might add more fuel to the report being
                                    completed by the Rand think tank this month. 

                                    Early drafts of the Rand report propose an overhaul of federal
                                    crash investigations that would distance companies such as Boeing
                                    from certain scientific studies to insulate investigations from
                                    interference by participants. 

                                    Rand has concluded the changes are necessary because Boeing,
                                    the airlines and other companies facing potentially
                                    multimillion-dollar liability over plane crashes might have an
                                    incentive to slow down investigations to buy their attorneys time to
                                    conclude lawsuits and protect the reputation of their products. 

                                    While endorsing the current practice of letting companies that are
                                    a party to crashes participate in the investigations, Rand is urging
                                    restrictions on analysis provided by companies such as Boeing
                                    and turning over certain tasks to independent laboratories. 

                                    Rand also is urging an expansion of the NTSB's rulings on the
                                    cause of plane crashes rather than putting limits on the "probable
                                    cause" findings issued by the board, as some companies had

                                    But the report rejects the idea of permitting a representative of
                                    families of survivors to participate in the investigations. Adding
                                    more participants with vested legal interests would further
                                    complicate crash investigations. 

                                    Copyright © 1999 The Seattle Times Company