JULY 18, 1996
It's unclear when authorities will know what caused the crash of TWA's Flight 800 that killed 230 onboard. As investigators hunt through 240 square miles of wreckage, a panel of experts considers possible scenarios.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm joined now by experts on airlines and airline security. Jim Burnett chaired the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates all air crashes, from 1981 to 1991. He now runs a transportation consulting firm in Arkansas. Robert John Hansman is professor of aeronautics and director of the International Center for Air Transportation at MIT. Robert Kierce served as head of international security for TWA from 1977 to 1992. Morris Busby was coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department from 1989 to 1991 and Ambassador to Colombia from 1991 to 1993. He's now with a security consulting firm.
July 18, 1996
Statements on the crash from President Clinton and Robert Dole
May 13, 1996
Interview with former FAA Inspector General, Mary Schiavo
Browse the NewsHour's Transportation Backgrounders
Jack McGeorge is a former Secret Service official who now heads a security consulting firm. Thank you all for being with us. And starting with you, Mr. Burnett, I know we can't jump to conclusions, I know we have to be very careful, but looking at what is known now, what stands out in your mind?
JIM BURNETT, Former Chairman, NTSB: Well, we possibly may have had an explosive device on this aircraft. We possibly may have had a structural failure. We could have had some sort of catastrophic engine failure that led to, umm, a massive fuel fire. We don't know the cause of the accident right now. It's important that the investigation be conducted as an aviation accident investigation until we have--at least until we have evidence of, of criminal wrongdoing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Hansman, the big--the very large amount of fire, does that tell you anything?
ROBERT JOHN HANSMAN, MIT: Well, the indication that the airplane was on fire or the remains of the airplane were on fire before they hit the ground indicate that there was some sort of either explosion or some sort of event that triggered the fire, but, again, as Jim says, we don't know at this point what caused it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Anything else that stands out from what's known so far, for example, that there was no transmission from the pilot to the control tower?
PROF. HANSMAN: Yeah. That is an indication that the event occurred rapidly, that the crew was unaware or was so busy that they couldn't transmit down to the ground.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Amb. Busby, what about you, anything stand out in your mind from just the little amount we know so far?
MORRIS BUSBY, Security Analyst: Well, I think the fact that there was no transmission from the crew and the catastrophic nature of the incident certainly point to, to my mind, perhaps an explosive device on the airplane. It's too early to tell that. I think we will know the answer to that question very quickly. The forensics will tell us that, but certainly it does not look good at this point.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Kierce, traveling at 11,000 feet, more or less, could it possibly have been a, a mid-air collision?
ROBERT KIERCE, Former TWA Security Director: That's always a possibility, but actually there's no evidence of any other aircraft remnants or what have you and no aircraft in the area.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I thought there was some evidence on some control panels.
MR. KIERCE: I'm not aware of that, no. I'm concerned--I share what you've said and what the ambassador said concerning the fact that there was no communication between the aircraft and either the air traffic controllers or TWA officers, and that's a, that's a concern.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. McGeorge, just on this one issue, do you have anything to add about what we know just from, for example, from, from the eyewitness reports--are they reliable in these cases?
JACK McGEORGE, Security Analyst: No. Eyewitness reports in any criminal investigation are notoriously unreliable. And that's unfortunate. I think what we can rely on is that there was some ball of fire in the sky. It appeared suddenly, flames fell from the sky, as did the airplane. Beyond that, I don't think that the statements of the eyewitnesses can be relied on for much.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And historically in airline crashes, I gather, that has been the case. Is that not the case, Mr. Burnett, that in prior crashes people have reported huge explosions, and it turned out it was not caused by an explosion, actually, it was something else they ere hearing?
MR. BURNETT: That's frequent. Many times witnesses say they heard an explosion which may be an aircraft breaking up in air. They say--they say they see an explosion which may be engine flame-outs. It may be an aircraft inverted so that the lights don't present the pattern that's familiar to people, but we very much appreciate those people who are giving us eyewitness accounts because they are valuable.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Mr. Burnett, let's begin with you. I want to go through some of these possible explanations. Let's start with structural failure. In your mind, could it be possibly structural failure that caused this? And talk to us a little bit about that and what one would be looking for now.
MR. BURNETT: One of the things could be some sort of failure of the pressure vessel, in other words failure of the skin of the aircraft, such as happened on the 747 that crashed in Japan in 1985. Another possibility would be the failure of some non-redundant structural member, one that has nothing else to take its place, such as a wing spar or a center beam on the aircraft. There's also a possibility of a massive engine failure, and you have engines on the wings and fuel in the wings, so those are all possibilities. Whatever happened either disabled the pilots, disabled the electrical system so that there could be no more communication, or presented the pilots with such a massive workload that they could not communicate.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Hansman, this is your field of specialty, the structural aspects of airplanes. Could you elaborate a little bit about what could have happened, and what would the investigators be looking for to consider that, to investigate that right now?
PROF. HANSMAN: Well, again, what the investigators would be looking at are the pieces of the wreckage that they can recover, and from those pieces, they'll be able to look for patterns which would indicate what happened. A simple structural failure probably would not result in a fireball that you saw, so it would have to be something more complicated like an engine, massive engine failure, which would--could hole the wing and go into the fuel tanks.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Has that happened before, as far as you know?
PROF. HANSMAN: Umm, there certainly have been major structural failures in engines. And there have been cases where, where fuel has exploded, although I don't recall right now any cases where engine--massive engine failure caused a fuel explosion.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Kierce, do you have anything to add to this, having watched TWA over all these years, about the structural aspect?
MR. KIERCE: Well, I've had the experience of being involved in our bombing in which four individuals were sucked out of the side of an aircraft and that caused a hole in the side of the aircraft, the structural weaknesses and vulnerabilities. I know also that the FAA based upon that instance and other circumstances have done extensive investigations in their laboratories in Atlantic City to determine the various strengths of these materials. But a very, very small amount of explosive caused enough of a hole in this particular bombing incident to have absolutely sucked four people. Three of the individuals were from one family, a grandmother, a mother, and a tiny baby.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And this was where and when?
MR. KIERCE: This was in Athens and it was back in, I believe it was '85.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. I'm going to come back to sabotage or explosion in a minute. I want to get into mid-air collision. Back to you, Mr. Burnett. Is that a possibility? I believe, did I not hear that there was some evidence that there might have been a plane in the area, or that was conflicting evidence?
MR. BURNETT: Well, the only information I have heard in that regard was some sort of military activity with some sort of experiment that may have involved pyrotechnics of some sort that may have been in the general area. And that's something that probably needs to be looked at. I don't think that we have much evidence of any event of that nature, umm, and certainly I don't think any other plane has been reported to be lost or has any indication, do we have any indication of another plane being involved. So I would think that that is--you couldn't really rule it out at this time, but it's an unlikely scenario, given the lack of evidence for it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Amb. Busby, now let's move to the question of sabotage. There's been a lot of speculation about that and people are certainly looking into that possibility. And I should say that a recent wire--umm, this is a Reuters wire that came over the wire very recently--the State--the U.S. State Department said Thursday it viewed a warning letter received before the TWA airplane crash as a general political tract by its authors and not a specific threat. There had been some report that there had been--and ABC reported that an Arabic newspaper had received a warning Wednesday of an attack on an American target from the same group that claimed responsibility for an earlier bombing. In that case, it came before the crash and said that it would happen at about the same time as the crash. Of course, these are all, again, uh, completely unconfirmed. But what about that, what about sabotage?
AMB. BUSBY: Well, I think--go back to a point that was made a moment ago about an explosive on the airplane--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yeah.
AMB. BUSBY: --and the effect structurally.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what would people look for? Yeah.
AMB. BUSBY: Well, certainly, they will reconstruct the aircraft, as the professor said, and if you've ever seen the pictures of what the NTSB and the investigators were able to do with Pan Am 103, you could very clearly see where the explosion was. In that particular--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Pan Am 103 was the airplane that crashed--
AMB. BUSBY: It went down in Lockerbie.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --over Lockerbie, Scotland.
AMB. BUSBY: In that particular case, the placement of the bomb, which was not really that large, sort of unzipped the aircraft's pressure hull and opened it up and allowed it to disintegrate. You had a similar kind of effect with UTA 772 that went down in the desert. At one point we were very worried that terrorists were beginning to actually devise means to place aircraft--place bombs on aircraft in strategic points. It is interesting to note that when you put a bomb on an airplane that would cause a massive explosion such as this, you're talking about a fairly sizeable amount of explosive unless you are able to place the explosive in a vulnerable point. I think all of those things will go into what these people are going to be looking at, and I think we'll know the answers to those questions fairly soon.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In the next 24 hours, you think, or a matter of days?
AMB. BUSBY: It depends on the amount of material from the aircraft that they're able to recover. They may not find an explosive. We still are speculating about that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Burnett--yes, go ahead.
MR. KIERCE: I would introduce the element of luck in this too, Ambassador, and that is that we have a situation in which with the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City incidents, there was a lot of luck in finding a piece of the equipment or a piece of the, the truck that was used in this thing, and that just broke it for the Bureau. So I think the time is, is sort of an imponderable at this instant, but I share your point. It could happen tomorrow, or it could happen in two or three months.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But, Mr. Burnett, exactly what are the investigators doing now? They're looking at pieces of the plane. They're reconstructing the plane. Are they also investigating the bodies?
MR. BURNETT: I would think about all they have to do now is to, umm, examine the bodies, which can be very good evidence. They look at the injuries of the bodies to see whether or not they were injected out into the air stream at high altitude and fell from high altitude. They will look at, um, to see whether or not there's any evidence of charring on clothing or soot on clothing, and, and those sorts of things. It's a gruesome process, but one that the NTSB has to carry out as they work with the coroners in the matter. Probably that, except for the wreckage distribution pattern, that's probably all they have to go on now. The recovery--the bodies will be recovered before there is an extensive effort to recover wreckage, and especially the metal pieces that are most apt to tell something. And I would think that unless they are lucky, that it will be a while before we will know what happened to this, because you've got wreckage spread over several miles and under the sea.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you mean by--
MR. BURNETT: And although it will be recoverable, it's going to be a slow process.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you mean by a while, a matter of days, weeks?
MR. BURNETT: No. I would--weeks would, would certainly be closer than days. However, we could get lucky and find as, as the Safety Board was, I think, in the ValuJet investigation and find some key evidence earlier than would have been expected.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. McGeorge, what about terminal, safety at the terminal? One official said today that on a scale of one to four in all the airline terminals it's about three plus right now because of the Olympics and other, other matters, other concerns over this last year. What about that at the airport?
MR. McGEORGE: Well, certainly, security is up all over the United States, because of the Olympics, because of other concerns, the bombing in Saudi Arabia; all of these things influence our security posture. So they're doing the very best that they can do with what we've got to work with. I would not certainly leap to any conclusion that TWA was lax in that regard.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the airport at--in Athens, this airplane came from Athens to New York and then was on its way to Paris. That airport had some problems. What were those problems?
MR. McGEORGE: I do not remember specifically what went on in Athens that you're referring to.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How about you, do you know, Mr. Kierce?
MR. KIERCE: Well, there's been a, a long history of difficulties, uh, in the operations of the airport in Athens. And this goes back ten, fifteen years. It's always been sort of an up and down thing. The Philippines is the counterpart in the Far East, but both of these airports have been put on record by the FAA and they have amended their procedures and practices so that they are approved at this time. So we have to think of that as well.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let's say that--I mean, I understand that we are speculating here. We have no evidence at the moment that there was an explosive device, but let's say somebody got on in Athens. Could they have left the device on the plane, gotten off in New York, and then it would have taken off with this flight? Could that happen?
MR. KIERCE: I would say that's a possibility. I think we would be with our heads in the sand if we said no, our security check of the aircraft will be completely thorough. It doesn't work that way. In other words, you do a very complete and comprehensive search of the aircraft which is required by the FAA, but to imagine that every possibility has been answered I think is something else again.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Amb. Busby, what do you think? I noticed that the former inspector general for the Transportation Department, Mary Schiavo, said that 40 percent of their staffers were able to--no--her staffers breached security 40 percent of the time in the tests that they carried out at the airport. What do you think about that?
AMB. BUSBY: Well, I, I have an opinion that, as I say, we will know--maybe it'll be weeks--maybe it'll be months--but we will know what happened to this aircraft. The forensics will ultimately tell us that. Whether it is an act of terrorism or not an act of terrorism, I think there are some fundamental deficiencies in aviation security as it is conducted in this country that this is an opportunity for us to address. I don't know what Mr. Kierce thinks. I have long been critical of the system that we have, whereby the FAA mandates standards, but it is the airline that is responsible for security. And the airline pays for security, which means that you are putting aviation security on the bottom line, and it becomes a commercial question, rather than a security question. And I think that that's a serious issue we should be taking a look at.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think about that, Mr. Kierce?
MR. KIERCE: Well, what has been said is quite accurate. I agree with that. The difference is though that with the pressures of the aviation industry financially now, the bottom line, the question of yield, the element of finance I think is brought to bear, and we're dealing with a--I like to use one term that sort of influences the whole fact and that is complacency. If you're not right now for security and any--if anyone had the role of director of security for one of our U.S. carriers, it would be an easy entre into the chief executive offices or the president's office. It would be an easy blank check to get whatever they wanted at this time if it were within reason. But after a while, when complacency sets in, you have a diminishment of that, and you have difficulties in realizing what you'd like to do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Burnett, briefly on the issue of, of security.
MR. BURNETT: Well, I think we can't make policy on the basis of an accident whose cause--the cause of which--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yeah.
MR. BURNETT: --we don't know, but I think we can make policy on the basis of the inspector general's report which has been submitted to the Department of Transportation and not released. And I would like to see the prompt release of that without editing. I think it would be helpful for the American people to be able to address this issue.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. McGeorge, just going one step further in this process. Let's--might I say first that when the bombing in Oklahoma City occurred, there was much speculation that it was a foreign group and it turned out, of course, that it was not a foreign group, and allegedly it was a couple of people who are currently in jail and they were both Americans, but who could carry out a bombing of this size? This is a pretty enormous undertaking. What groups might have that capacity, local or foreign--domestic or foreign?
MR. McGEORGE: A number of possible answers there. Certainly it could be a domestic group. It could be a foreign group. The Iranians have certainly sworn to attack us. They've done it in the past potentially--certainly points in that direction. The Iraqis have a reason to come after us. The Serbs as well--it could be domestic. It's unlikely that this is a militia-related thing. I think it's very unlikely. It's not impossible. It could be some group that we don't know anything about. Frankly, though, it's not that big an undertaking. We shouldn't assume that this involves, you know, dozens of people and thousands and thousands of dollars. That's actually probably not the case.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Amb. Busby.
AMB. BUSBY: Well, I must say that I tend to differ with Mr. McGeorge on that. The experience that we've had in the past and certainly when I was working in this field was that in order to penetrate aviation security, in order to plan and put a bomb on an aircraft requires some degree of professionalism, some degree of, of training, and more than likely, those kinds of things come from state sponsors of terrorism. And it is a more substantial undertaking. I don't believe that a group of people in the garage one night got together and decided to bomb an airplane. I think it was well planned, well organized, and I think we need to look to state sponsorship and organized groups, if it turns out to be terrorist attack.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all very much for being with us.