|Thursday, December 9, 1999, 11:22 a.m. Pacific
Boeing lawyers still saying
have downed TWA Flight
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
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
been unable to identify any potential ignition source aboard
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
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
the United States military or any other United States government
But, the company added, it is still too early to rule out even
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
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
involved. Lawyers for the families of those killed declined to
comment, but the tests are expected to be discussed as early
this afternoon at a pretrial hearing before the U.S. District
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
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
Boeing's use of the continuing NTSB investigation as a defense
tactic while at the same time participating in the investigation
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
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,
"NTSB investigations of major commercial aviation accidents
have become nothing but preparation for anticipated litigation,"
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
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