It was 12 years ago tonight that a 747 loaded with 230 people took off from
JFK in New York, gently tilted itself over the Atlantic toward Paris, and
exploded. Amid the many memorials flooding the Web today, almost none are
focusing on the still-lingering controversy over the official cause of the
The official explanation for the fireball which consumed TWA 800 is that
vapors in its central wing fuel tank were ignited by a spark, probably
routed via old, insulation-challenged wiring. The fuel/air mix in the tank
had been made more volatile by the fact that the plane had sitting on the
runway in the hot sun for hours prior to takeoff.
OK, so now you're wondering whether I'm some conspiracy theorist who thinks
the jumbo jet was shot out of the sky by a shoulder-launched terrorist
missile, or, more nefariously, downed by accidental friendly fire from a
U.S. Navy training exercise. (There's also a well-known article from The
New York Review of Books
, which argues electromagnetic interference
No, I' m not.
My beef with the TWA 800 investigation is fairly unique. It has nothing to
do with the conclusion, but rather with the apparent lack of transparency
during and after the investigation. The thing is, if you want to convince
people -- particularly folks with a scientific background, like engineers
and computer scientists -- of the veracity of an hypothesis, you're supposed
to do it on the power of your facts. Not by ramming it down people's
Start with the numerous witnesses who saw a rising fireball in the sky. Many
weren't interviewed, and those who persisted in their claim that they saw an
object rising up toward the plane were essentially dismissed as being nuts.
Attempting to put these widespread anecdotal reports to rest, the CIA put
together a video simulation (scroll down,
) showing TWA 800 continuing to rise with its nose section blown
The thing that really got to me, though, were the hearings, televised on
C-SPAN, during which Boeing engineers presented their findings about the
fuel tank explosion. The hearings had the feel of a set piece, where the
conclusions were gonna be what they were gonna be.
Again, I'm not saying the fuel-vapor-ignition wasn't the cause of the
TWA 800 explosion. I'm just saying I would like to have had deeper exposure
to the alternate paths pursued -- not by the kooks -- but by the
investigators themselves. Indeed, I have no do ubt that the FBI and the FAA
both looked into the terrorist theories before dismissing them. It's safe to
assume that political considerations -- as in, don't panic the public -- are
why we didn't get a good look at the reasons they discarded that stuff.
One other point: if a fuel-tank explosion was the cause, isn't it negligence
that the FAA is only now, on the 12th anniversary of the disaster,
ordering the airlines
to install a fire-prevention system which pumps
nitrogen into the tanks? By the way, the FAA order gives the airlines up to
eight years to implement the fix.
It's no wonder that some many families of the victims of TWA 800 have found
little solace in all the official machinations.