Associated Retired Aviation Professionals

TWA Flight 800 Shrapnel Court Hearing
Press Release        Massachusetts        12/4/05
More precisely than any other evidence dredged up from the Atlantic Ocean in the months after the mysterious explosion of Flight 800 in 1996, the numerous metal fragments discovered during autopsies and taken by the FBI for analysis potentially defined the exact nature of the explosion that ripped the 747 in half and killed 230 people. 
In the First Circuit Appeals Court in Boston on the morning December 7th, 2005, the FBI will attempt to defend how their $40 million investigation could have mislaid this critical information that underpinned their absolute certainty that a fuel tank, and not a bomb or missile, caused the initial explosion. 
The most uncontaminated direct evidence of the signature characteristics of the explosion of Flight 800 was “collected” by the victims in their dying moments.  It has taken 9 years to establish that there were scores of small metal fragments and even “BB-like pellets” removed from the victims during their autopsies.
Forensic examination of the residues was expected to determine exactly what type of explosion – fuel tank, bomb or missile?
Was the forensic evidence from all those shrapnel fragments consistent with a fuel tank explosion?  Were the results from numerous residue swabs that are documented as having been collected, consistent with a fuel explosion?  Were the fragment sizes consistent with a “low velocity” fuel tank explosion?  Were the analyses of the composition and direction of those fragments consistent with a fuel tank origin? 
Many of those objects were the very first evidence retrieved and they provided a snapshot and an evidentiary collage of the explosion that ripped the 747 into two halves and killed 230 people.
In 1998 Graeme Sephton, one of many independent researchers on Flight 800, did a freedom of information request to the FBI seeking listings of all the objects collected as evidence from the autopsies and also asking for all of the forensic results, physical details and summaries obtained from the analysis of those items. 
In response, over the seven years since, the FBI has only been able to locate one single page of actual forensic results originating from an FBI forensic examination.
The adequacy of this search is the subject of a current appeal in the First Circuit Federal Appeals Court in Boston.
To this day one of the most contentious aspects of the nearly $100 million Flight 800 investigation was that the government found no direct evidence supporting their final conclusion.  In August 2000 the NTSB ruled that the “most likely” cause was a hypothetical short circuit outside the fuel tank that might have found its way into the fuel tank.  They had no actual specific evidence.  The exploding fuel tank was a default conclusion relying on the fact that the FBI had unequivocally ruled out a bomb or a missile through its intensive forensic testing of the crash evidence.
This lawsuit has now established that the FBI cannot, or does not want to find any of these critical forensic results that might easily validate their conclusion once and for all.  FBI documents released over the course of this litigation prove that scores of unidentified “metal fragments” and “metal pellets” were removed during the autopsies of the 230 victims.  But the forensic evidence derived from analysis of those objects or any of the hundreds of others collected during the autopsies cannot now be located in its investigation archives. 
The claim by the FBI ever since 1999 that they cannot find any of the requested forensic results makes no reasonable sense at all.  It is also not reasonable that the FBI claimed complete certainty about their conclusion, without them also having a very firm grasp on the forensic results upon which that certainty relied.
This is of greater public concern because those forensic results were never shared or reviewed by the Suffolk County Coroner or anyone else inside the investigation (see: “the Unidentified Shrapnel” at:  ).
Daniel Stotter, Sephton’s attorney, believes the evidence that the FBI did an inadequate search is very compelling. The FBI also seriously undermined their credibility in the case when they refused to comply with district judge Michael Ponsor’s request in 2004 for a simple declaration that they had performed a reasonable search.
If the Appeals Court now rules against the FBI it will finally be possible to obtain and independently evaluate this very fundamental evidence about the investigation. Did the FBI do an adequate job and arrive at reasonable conclusions in their 15-month long, $40 million investigation? 
Alternately, if the FBI prevails, the public’s right to know under the federal FOI Act will suffer further erosion, aping the current trend towards greater secrecy. Our ability and the ability of the media to see through the fog of government spin and obfuscation will be further impaired.  Much therefore hinges on the results of this appeal.  The public interest needs effective checks and balances such as the FOI laws provide. It is critical to preserve such reasonable means to hold government agencies accountable. 
And if the FBI prevails, their win will be counter-productive for them because many of the details in the case, especially the FBI’s inability to locate important evidence, undermine their credibility and erode public confidence. 
The Flight 800 investigation will continue to be contentious until the underlying evidence is released. At a broader level Flight 800 is important to the public interest as a case study of how not to do a government investigation. Presently we have a dangerous flaw in our civic infrastructure.   For more background see:
contact:   Graeme Sephton
ph:     (413) 367-2253



  Robert E. Donaldson.  All rights reserved