Push To Reopen Probe Of Flight 800 Crash Stirs Old Emotions


Former investigators are calling for a new probe into the cause of the 1996 Trans World Airlines Flight 800 crash that killed all 230 people aboard, prompting a range of reactions from East End residents, some of whom assisted in the grim recovery effort.

In 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that an electric short most likely ignited a fuel vapor explosion in the plane’s center wing tank, downing the aircraft approximately 10 miles south of Cupsogue Beach about 12 minutes after it departed John F. Kennedy International Airport en route to Paris.

But since the day of the crash, some have claimed to be eyewitnesses who saw a streak of light or object—possibly a missile—traveling toward the aircraft before it exploded.

On June 19, six retired NTSB investigators, family members of victims and scientists filed a petition asking the board to reconsider its findings based on new evidence that they allege refutes the original conclusion. News of the petition came simultaneously with the announcement that a new documentary called “TWA Flight 800,” which includes testimony from the former investigators, will be released next month. The film will premiere on EPIX, a cable entertainment network, on Wednesday, July 17, at 8 p.m., and will screen at a film festival at Stony Brook University on Saturday, July 20, at 3 p.m.

Alan Inkles, the festival director, said he looks for films that are well-made and have universal appeal, and the documentary fits the bill. A friend of his who works for a film company sent him the screener in February, he said, and he thought it was “tremendously well done.”

Mr. Inkles added that he knew the film held great significance to the Long Island community—but he wasn’t aware of the petition to reopen the investigation when he booked the documentary. “I did not expect this story to explode the way it did last week,” he said. “I didn’t know it was coming.”

It has garnered plenty of positive interest so far, and he said he expects the screening to sell out.

Evan Goldstein was chief of the East Moriches Fire Department from 1995 to 1996, and assisted in the rescue effort, which, as it turns out, ended up being a recovery mission. He said he felt that before the September 11 attacks that many people didn’t consider terrorism as readily as they now do.

“Whether it was [a terrorist act] or not, that’s a job for the experts,” he said. Mr. Goldstein added that he was pleased to hear of the push to reopen the case. “I think there were a lot of unanswered questions,” he said.

Tom Stalcup, a co-producer of the film, who received his doctorate in physics from Florida State University, said he had been researching the crash and scrutinizing the government’s investigation on his own for several years. Through those efforts, he said he developed a relationship with Henry Hughes, a retired senior NTSB investigator. Mr. Stalcup said work on the documentary came about two years ago after Mr. Hughes and other former investigators retired, allowing them to speak candidly on the topic for the first time.

Two of the most significant pieces of evidence he and others found in their research, he said, were the number of aircraft wreckage items that tested positive for explosives; the NTSB final report only mentions three instances, whereas the petitioners claim to have found 100. Also, an analysis of the speed and direction of debris is consistent with a high-velocity detonation, the investigators are now alleging. The explosion, Mr. Stalcup maintains, was outside the plane—perhaps from a missile.

In a statement, the NTSB said it would review the petition to determine whether it presents enough new evidence or shows that the board’s findings are erroneous, two regulations required before an investigation can be reopened. It typically takes the NTSB about 60 days to review a petition before deciding whether to reopen a case.

The board said the original investigation lasted four years, and “remains one of the NTSB’s most detailed investigations,” with more than 17,000 pages of supporting material, all of which is available to the public. The methodically reassembled pieces of the Boeing 747 are now used for training purposes at the NTSB Training Center in Ashburn, Virginia.

Former Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot, who is running for the office again this year, took a photo while at Dockers Waterside Restaurant and Marina on Dune Road in East Quogue shortly before the plane went down on July 17, 1996. The shot appears to show a black, cylindrical shape in the sky—some believe it looks like a missile—and drew attention from the media. It remains a piece of evidence to many who challenge the NTSB findings.

When reached this week, Ms. Kabot, who lives in Quogue, declined to comment on the call to reopen the investigation, other than to say that the FBI confiscated and remains in possession of the photo and her roll of film.

Hampton Bays resident Fred Meyer, who was piloting a helicopter at the time of the crash, recalled in great detail the timing and direction of a vapor trail he witnessed in the sky, and moments later, multiple brilliant explosions. He said his years serving in the National Guard and as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam gave him the expertise to recognize explosions caused by missiles or warheads.

“The first thing I can tell you right away is that a fuel explosion didn’t cause the destruction of the aircraft,” he said in an interview last week. “I know exactly what I saw, and the government lies.”

Mr. Meyer said he does not know who fired the alleged missile or why, but he believes the federal government is willing to take great measures—even murder—to cover it up.

Such stories have been cast off as conspiracy theories, a term that Mr. Stalcup said he rejects. “Nothing is further from the truth,” he said. “What you have in these eyewitnesses is a cross-section of the Hamptons. The most important thing is, they all saw the same thing.”

The petition states that organizers located 20 FBI witness interview summary documents that the NTSB did not include in its public docket of the investigation. Mr. Stalcup said there are hundreds who witnessed the event, though their stories have been hushed or denied by authorities. “It’s one of the most brazen cover-ups in U.S. history,” he said.

Former FBI officials who headed the investigation of the crash have defended their conclusion that no criminal events caused the crash, and they denied a government cover-up.

Speonk resident John Dalen, who retired from the Coast Guard earlier this year, was home visiting his parents when the plane went down. He helped other officers locate and recover bodies from the water, placing them in the boathouse at the East Moriches Coast Guard station, which had to be set up as a temporary morgue.

He said he was upset when he heard the news of the push for a new investigation because it brought back the horrors of the event. He said he focused on bringing in bodies for families to bury, and he didn’t give thought to the theories about the cause of the crash. “I wish it would all go away,” Mr. Dalen said.

Though John Seamen, the longtime leader of an organization of family members of crash victims, told the Associated Press that he felt the push for the new probe would “reopen old wounds,” Mr. Stalcup said he has been contacted by family members who have thanked him for his work. “I know there are many that are very appreciative of what we’re doing,” he said.

U.S. Representative Tim Bishop of Southampton has advocated for safety measures that would require aircraft manufacturers to build protective shields that would prevent fuel tanks from exploding. Though a spokesman, he declined to comment on the latest push to reopen the investigation.

“Congressman Bishop has not seen any credible evidence that would call into question the findings of the painstaking investigation into the Flight 800 explosion, and has worked to institute new safety measures to prevent the kind of fuel tank malfunction identified as the cause,” Oliver Longwell, a spokesman for Mr. Bishop, said in an email on Tuesday.

Still, Mr. Stalcup said he wants to record to be corrected, and those responsible for the tragedy—and any cover-up—to be held accountable. “All these years, that’s always been my hope,” he said. “If they don’t do it, we’ll keep trying to find other ways to get the truth out.”

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