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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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Christine,
Like you I interviewed many of the investigators on TWA800, in my case for the UK Channel 4 doc series Black Box, which we were doing the initial research on when this tragedy occurred. Yes, the FBI was all over it, yes they tried to bully their way in, but as you say that's their MO. From the off, however, they had concluded, like many NTSB and other investigators I phoned on the day and the days after the explosion, that the best theory to fit the known facts was a bomb. Yet the real facts weren't yet known, and that would be a working theory until more and better facts came along and evidence either supported it or knocked it out. They eventually concluded that it was a fuel explosion and there was no evidence of a bomb explosion, and they had to move heaven and earth to prevent the FBI publicly announcing it was a bomb. One of my NTSB interviewees was talking of being on the phone to the FBI with them all hot to trot for an instant press conference announcing a bomb while he explained the different explosive properties of chemicals. The FBI were not covering up anything; what they were doing, maybe equally reprehensibly, was rushing to the conclusion that an act of terrorism was responsible. If not restrained by the cooler heads in the NTSB, with whom they did have a turf war over the investigation, they would have rushed to judgement and eventually been made to look very foolish. It was a case of Washington bureaucracies colliding; for some in the FBI, the bomb theory was the key to being in on a big big investigation that could make a lot of people's careers, and for that reason they clung to it far too long.
As for the other 'theories' surrounding TWA800, what tosh! Your fine book had all that was known then, and though it took ages and ages to come out (not Boeing's finest hour, IMO) the spark from the scavenge pump in an exceptionally overheated tank had to be the culprit. If I had a buck for all the nonsensical conspiracy theories I heard back then. The 'missile theory' was the most enduring, and that and the other crazy stuff that I could barely believe the human mind was capable of that was then proliferating on the web turned out to be something of a dress rehearsal for the plague of web-based conspiratorial lunacy post 9/11. There's so much more to say about this, and so little time. I haven't seen the film, but would like to, so I am not dumping on it until then -- unless of course they are going with the missile theory. Best to you and yours, Christine, Andy Weir

Jim Blaszczak said...

First of all I would like to commend your objectivity in your post since you have no small amont of "skin in the game". There are notmany journalists around anymore that are interested in the facts over theri own perspective.

Your book, representing many hours of research, gives a very well documented description of the crash and resulting investigation. You have the "high ground" here when it comes to this very interesting accident. I don't find it surprising that someone would take another look at this watershed tragedy.

No matter what the eventual outcome it is people like yourself that help make aviation safer by asking questions. Sometimes the NTSB gets it wrong, but usually they don't. Only by the extremely vulnerable introspection that you are part of will the aviation industry be the model for safe operations. If other industries and parts of our culture would only take the lead from aviation where reporters like yourself keep asking questions and demanding answers until we get the truth.....

The truth is all we ask, because, like you, those of us interested in aviation safety do "give a shit."

Jaime Herrera said...

Your insight is well documented in your book Christine and I admire you on that. Bomb or fuel pump it really goes to show that survivors of mishaps accidental or not are the real story tellers. But evidences should be carefully balanced with testimonies to be credible. The implosion of the B 737 of Philippine Airlines plane while still on the ground ready for take off showed the propensity of Boeing planes to have fuel pump trouble even if brand new. It was a lemon plane , forgotten with much questions left.