Thursday, December 9, 1999, 11:22 a.m. Pacific 

 Boeing lawyers still saying missile may
 have downed TWA Flight 800 

 by James V. Grimaldi 
 Seattle Times Washington bureau 

 WASHINGTON - Boeing said this week that the lack of
 evidence as to what sparked the blast that downed TWA Flight
 800 three years ago points to an "external source," such as a
 bomb or missile. 

 Boeing's statement in court documents Tuesday is the strongest to
 date revealing an aggressive legal defense that blames the 747
 crash on a bomb or missile - which the FBI and National
 Transportation Safety Board long ago ruled out.

 "That the NTSB in over three years of exhaustive investigation has
 been unable to identify any potential ignition source aboard the
 aircraft suggests that an external source caused the explosion,"
 Boeing said. "Unless and until such time as a cause is determined,
 ignition sources external to the aircraft - of any type - cannot be
 ruled out."

 Boeing, the nation's second-largest defense contractor,
 acknowledged in the documents that "Boeing has no direct
 evidence that Flight 800 was brought down by a missile fired by
 the United States military or any other United States government

 But, the company added, it is still too early to rule out even a
 government-fired missile before reviewing all of the FBI reports,
 and because Boeing consultants, the company says, have had only
 limited access to the wreckage.

 The NTSB is expected to issue a cause sometime next year on
 the crash. All 230 aboard the July 1996 flight from John F.
 Kennedy Airport to Paris were killed when the plane blew up off
 Long Island, N.Y.

 The comments, signed by Seattle attorneys Keith Gerrard and
 Steve Bell of the firm Perkins Coie, are in response to pretrial
 questions, called interrogatories, posed by lawyers for families
 suing Boeing over the crash.

 They also come on the heels of microscopic testing on the
 wreckage of TWA Flight 800 demanded by Boeing. Parts of the
 fuselage were obtained from the NTSB and tested at an
 independent laboratory in Chantilly, Va., last month to look for
 traces of a bomb or missile.

 According to a source close to the case, the plaintiffs' attorneys
 believe the results show no evidence that a missile or a bomb was
 involved. Lawyers for the families of those killed declined to
 comment, but the tests are expected to be discussed as early as
 this afternoon at a pretrial hearing before the U.S. District Court in

 The NTSB has determined the plane crashed when the center fuel
 tank blew up after the 747 sat on a hot Tarmac with the
 air-conditioner unit, situated under the tank, running for at least
 two hours before takeoff. The board is seeking changes to the
 design of the fuel tanks.

 While Boeing's attorneys pursue bomb theories, company safety
 engineers say they are pursuing other matters. Ron Hinderberger,
 director of airplane safety, said Boeing takes seriously the
 NTSB's concern about fuel-tank flammability.

 "My calendar is filled with working the fuel-system-safety
 enhancements and the investigation from the standpoint of what
 we are doing to get changes out there," Hinderberger said. "I'm
 not spending my time on missiles or whether a missile was or was
 not involved."

 Boeing's use of the continuing NTSB investigation as a defense
 tactic while at the same time participating in the investigation of the
 crash is identified as a major problem in a report released today.
 The Rand Corp. is suggesting an overhaul of the investigation
 process while still permitting "parties" to the crash, such as
 companies as Boeing, to play a vital role in determining the cause.

 Rand identifies TWA Flight 800 as a "complex-system event" in
 which the cause of the crash leaves "no permanent record to
 discover in the wreckage." In those cases, the attorneys and
 insurance companies are playing a greater role of influence on
 their "party" representatives involved in the investigation, the Rand
 report found.

 "NTSB investigations of major commercial aviation accidents
 have become nothing but preparation for anticipated litigation," the
 Rand report found.

 Family members of victims have complained angrily about
 Boeing's role in the investigations and point to the
 bomb-or-missile legal strategy as an example.

 William Rogers of Montoursville, Pa., whose daughter, Kim, 17,
 died in the crash, said the bomb-or-missile theories "stab you right
 in the heart every time you hear it."

 Boeing attorneys, Rogers contends, "want to place some doubt in
 the minds of the potential jury pool. They quite obviously are
 mistaken. It is not out of the realm of infinite possibility, but it is
 not in the plausible realm, and they know that."

 Information from Seattle Times aerospace writer Chuck
 Taylor was included in this report.

  Copyright © 1999 The Seattle Times Company