JULY 16, 1997
A year later the details of what felled TWA Flight 800, killing all 230 passengers on board, remain uncertain. A panel discussion analyzing the circumstances behind this tragic crash.
JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has the TWA 800 story.
MARGARET WARNER: On the night of July 17, 1996, a TWA 747, bound for Paris from JFK Airport in New York, exploded into flames off the coast of Long Island, killing all 230 people aboard.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC: (July 17, 1996) We now know that a TWA jet aircraft Flight 800 has exploded in midair, apparently landing in the Atlantic anywhere from ten to twenty miles South of New York's Long Island.
MARGARET WARNER: In the days and weeks that followed, divers recovered the remains of 220 bodies and more than 95 percent of the plane. From the outset, investigators pursued three theories about what caused the jumbo jet to explode. The three scenarios were: a bomb; a missile fired from a boat or shore; or mechanical failure. The two lead investigators are still on the case. James Kallstrom is an assistant director for the FBI. Robert Francis is vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Mr. Francis, what do you know now about what cause the crash?
ROBERT FRANCIS, National Transportation Safety Board: Well, I think that we've--we've learned and we learned this fairly early on--that we did have an explosion in the center fuel tank of the 747. We know that, or we believe that there was an environment in there that was conducive to an explosion. What we don't know is what caused the ignition of the fuel tank. And we're still working on that.
As you may be aware, we've spent a year basically working on all of the facets of this, but we're particularly looking at the questions of fuel, temperature, pressure in the tank, the characteristics of what happens to the fuel, what happens to the air in there. And we're currently involved in some tests with a 747 off of--off of New York, which is giving us some more information that will enable us to use that, along with the tests that we're doing on the fuel.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Kallstrom, what do you consider the most likely explanations, or possible causes? What remain live theories, in your view, as to what caused this ignition? What caused the explosion to occur?
JAMES KALLSTROM, Assistant FBI Director: Well, you know, it's not a whole lot different, Margaret, than what you talked about at the opening. We've looked at this entire airplane now from a law enforcement standpoint. You know, the thing we have to answer, the question that the FBI and the law enforcement team has to answer, did this tragedy, did this fuel tank blow up because of a criminal act?
Did someone put a bomb, a fragment of a missile, some sort of a device on there? We've seen no evidence of that in the last year forensically, and our investigation worldwide, which has been a huge investigation, has not turned up any evidence of that. And we're in sort of the final stages of looking at the mockup now, looking at all the holes for, you know, small devices, things that could have been put on there if people had access to the plane for a length of time.
You know, our job is to really look at every option, no matter how remote, and to beat those down. So as we sit here tonight, you know, we really can't tell you. It's still one of the three. It looks less likely it's criminal because we haven't seen any evidence yet. But we're not quite to the end of that investigative track yet.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Francis, do you agree that the criminal possibility is not totally ruled out, but it seems less likely?
ROBERT FRANCIS: I think that's absolutely an accurate thing to say, and I think that the important thing is that, you know, we've been a team since the beginning between the NTSB and the FBI and the criminal aspects are their jurisdiction, they're their expertise. It's important always to realize that when we talk about looking at parts of the airplane, or whatever we're talking about, the fuel mixtures or whatever, that we are looking together at these things, and we'll continue to do so. But we're certainly satisfied that the FBI is in the best position to make the final determination on whether it was or was not a criminal act, and we will continue to work with them on that.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Mr. Kallstrom, of course, a missile could also be a criminal act. Where would you say that theory is in the sort of likelihood--barometer of likelihood at this point?
JAMES KALLSTROM: Well, I can guarantee you a missile would be a criminal act. I mean, from the very beginning, you know, that first night, the sketchy information, 747 in the water, big fireball, people saw things in the sky, communications from the cockpit were absolutely normal, you know, we thought, as the rest of the world thought, that there was a very good chance this was an act of terrorism. The next day at the second press conference Bob and I talked about the possibility that a missile could have shot down the plane, based on--at that time--close to a hundred eyewitnesses that saw things in the sky. We had two legs to that theory: friendly fire, you know, the old Pierre Salinger conspiracy theory.
MARGARET WARNER: The former ABC newsman who has promoted that theory, yes.
JAMES KALLSTROM: Right. And then, of course--
MARGARET WARNER: That it was--just to explain--that it was something the U.S. military was doing, exercises, and somehow gone awry.
JAMES KALLSTROM: Right. Right. And we put that up there because we needed to check that out, and, of course, the terrorists. We knew early on they would have been in the water in a boat, and we put a tremendous investment and from investigative resources, all of us, into looking at that. We said, look, it wasn't friendly fire. We did a comprehensive, independent investigation. We put an X through that. But was it a terrorist? I think what we're left with now, we have evidence of that; we have no collateral intelligence information that it was. But there's still a distinct possibility that some small fragment from a missile warhead could have exploded and penetrated the fuselage and the center fuel tank. That's what's sort of left on the board.
MARGARET WARNER: I understand from some reports--and maybe you could confirm this--that these test flights you're doing now, one of the things you're looking for is whether that area around the center fuel tank could have become so hot that it would attract a heat-seeking missile, is that right?
JAMES KALLSTROM: Well, I'm not going to confirm that particular test, but let me tell you that, you know, early on we knew we had to do a lot of testing on missiles. Luckily, for us in this country and the rest of the western world, we have not had planes shot down with missiles, although there's been a number of them around the world in Africa, the Middle East, and the old Soviet Union, so we did not have a large database forensically of what that type of damage would look like. So we've done a lot of testing for this tragedy and I think will serve us well and put us in good stead for any future tragedies we have to investigate.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Francis, let's go back to the mechanical theories you're exploring. And I know it's still preliminary, but can you be any more specific about what might have been different about this flight, a 747 going to Paris, that--what was the combination of circumstances that might have triggered something mechanical that would cause this?
ROBERT FRANCIS: I think that's getting a little speculative. I don't--you know, we're looking at this flight. We're obviously looking at anything else that any other explosive fuel tanks incidents that have happened around the world. We're looking for parallels. We're looking for differences, but I think it's fair to say at this point that there was nothing that we have found that was extraordinary about this flight.
I think it's enormously important for us to remember--and I think that the New York Times in an editorial during this week came out with a statement to the effect that we've all got to realize that this is an enormously unusual event.
We've got eleven or twelve hundred 747's that have been operating all over the world for the past 25 years, and millions of hours of service, and lots of them have taken off with hot center fuel tanks and hot weather, with air conditioners going, and all the other things, so I think that, you know, we look at this flight, we're looking at this aircraft; we're looking at the atmosphere and what was going on; but to speculate that there was something particular to this, or what it was is terribly difficult.
MARGARET WARNER: So what you're saying is that even the combination of factors--many people have made a lot out of the fact that the center fuel tank was almost empty--that those--that that combination has existed many times. There's nothing you can point to that, ah ha, this was a strange confluence of factors?
ROBERT FRANCIS: The center fuel tank being empty happens hundreds of times every day in 747's all over the world.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Kallstrom, back to the possibility of a criminal act, of course, as we know, as an American public, we also strongly responded to that possibility, and there was a lot of airport security measures put in place. In retrospect, do you--as an investigator, I mean, do you think that was an overreaction, or was it still a good idea to have?
JAMES KALLSTROM: No. I think it's a great idea. I think the security measures the Gore Commission recommended and the subsequent action of the Congress in appropriating money on these for new technology and new training and a whole host of things are things that are very wise to do and that we should do.
I mean, we live in, you know, a very different world today than we lived in 20 years ago, and we've seen acts of terrorism around the world. And certainly we should take prudent steps at every choke point of the system to protect ourselves.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Francis, do you think that there are any safety changes that should be made in the mechanical area in advance of coming up with the cause?
ROBERT FRANCIS: Well, I think we've made some recommendations to the FAA to look in a number of different areas. And as a result of that, the FAA has come out with a request to the public at large, and that's the worldwide public, and particularly the technical community, for anybody's thoughts on, you know, No. 1, what could have happened, No. 2, how it could have happened, and No. 3, what might be prudent things to do to avoid it happening again in the future.
But I would repeat that whenever you start changing things in an aircraft that's been designed and operating with an enormously safe record over years and years and years, that you've got to be very careful that you know what you're doing, because when you start changing the design of an airplane or how you operate an airplane, you may end up buying yourself more problems than what you're solving.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it's conceivable, Mr. Francis, that we'll never know the cause of this crash?
ROBERT FRANCIS: Conceivable, yes, but I would say that it's going to be a very, very long time before the NTSB is going to be in a position to say we cannot find out what happened to TWA 800.
MARGARET WARNER: And Mr. Kallstrom, what do you think? Do you think it's possible we'll never know?
JAMES KALLSTROM: Oh, I think I agree with Bob totally. I think it's possible. But I think the FBI and the law enforcement team will reach a conclusion on the question was it criminal, and I think the science that NTSB has, the best brains in the world, the national laboratories, many of the universities, people from around the world. I think they certainly will find the answer.
MARGARET WARNER: Great. Well, thank you both gentlemen very much.
JAMES KALLSTROM: Thank you.
ROBERT FRANCIS: Thanks.
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