Thursday, June 20, 2013

Documentary on TWA 800 Should Spark Review

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It has taken 17 years but the most qualified of the amateur investigators into the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 seems to have found his voice in a powerful documentary that's making headlines this week. Tom Stalcup teamed up with Kristina Borjesson in the (too long by half) 90 minute documentary. Together they raise intriguing questions about what might have caused the explosion that brought down the Boeing 747 on a flight from New York to Paris on July 17, 1996. All 230 people on board died.


It is with careful parsing that I praise this film, having authored Deadly Departure, a book that deals with the air safety issues related to this same air accident. I am concerned about the filmmakers decision to interview subjects of questionable expertise and their heavy reliance on eyewitnesses.

My most serious problem, though is the false premise that dominates the first section of the documentary and that is that the FBI was up-to-no-good from the get-go, as demonstrated by the fact that they arrived en masse, seizing control of everything and hoarding information.

This entirely characteristic behavior is given an ominous "what-were-they-up-to?" spin in the beginning of the film, when it is the default modus operandi of the FBI - not to mention a natural product of the chaos of a huge, complex and pressure-filled operation such as the crash of a jumbo jet under mysterious circumstances.

I did not believe then and I do not believe now that within hours of the crash the FBI marched into Long Island with orders to initiate a cover up because they already knew what happened. The FBI isn't that clever. Trying to read something nefarious into the banal undermines credibility.

Where the film is persuasive is in exposing an incomplete investigation. Having spent 4 years and millions of dollars on the probe, the film raises questions that ought to be addressed in the  NTSB's final product.

For all its faults, and there seem to have been many, the investigation did result in new design standards that eliminate the propensity of Boeing airliners to fly with fuel tanks in an explosive state. That's a good thing.

But is it enough?  What if there's more to the Flight 800 disaster? At a minimum, the safety board needs to address why critical evidence was left unexamined, including missing wreckage, an unidentified residue on the exterior of the fuel tank and radar returns that suggest something outside the plane moments before the event.

Former NTSB investigator Hank Hughes plays a large role in the film joining others whose opinions I hold in regard. On Wednesday Hughes filed a petition for reconsideration of the crash report and it is under review, a spokeswoman said.

The safety board did not participate in the documentary, perhaps concluding it would continue to feed a conspiracy theory that is alive and well and populated with crackpots. Truth be told, there is an element of the outrageous in this film - which is also gratuitously sentimental.

At the program's end, a woman who lost a loved one in the crash says, "its very frustrating that no one gives a shit anymore." The headline-getting power of this not-yet-aired documentary demonstrates she is wrong about that.

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