Did U.S. Gov’t Lie about TWA Flight 800 Crash? Ex-Investigators Seek Probe as New Evidence Emerges
Seventeen years ago, TWA Flight 800 crashed off Long Island, killing all 230 people aboard. The official government investigation blamed mechanical failure, but now a group of former investigators are petitioning the National Transportation Safety Board to reopen the probe, saying the original report was falsified. Was the plane accidentally shot down by the U.S. Navy conducting a nearby exercise, or was it a terrorist attack? We speak to the filmmakers behind a new documentary on the crash, "TWA Flight 800," former CBS News producer Kristina Borjesson and Tom Stalcup, a physicist and co-founder of Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin with a look at shocking new claims about an airplane crash that happened 17 years ago. More than 200 people were killed when TWAFlight 800 burst into flames just minutes after taking off from New York on July 17th, 1996. The cause of that explosion has been in dispute ever since. Government investigators say it was most likely triggered by a failure in the plane’s electrical system. But many witnesses say they saw a streak a light move toward the plane before the explosion.
Now, six investigators who participated in the original probe of the crash have come forward to request that the case be reopened. They have petitioned the National Transportation Safety Board to reactivate its investigation. Their stories are featured in a new film directed by Kristina Borjesson, a former CBS News producer.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We continue our coverage over shocking new claims about the crash of TWA Flight 800 that killed 230 people on July 17th, 1996. The plane burst into flames off the coast of New York just minutes after takeoff. A government investigation concluded the cause of the explosion was a mechanical failure. But on Wednesday, a group of investigators who participated in that probe submitted a petition to the National Transportation Safety Board asking them to reopen the case.
The investigators say they have, quote, "reviewed the FAA radar evidence along with new evidence not available to the NTSB during the official investigation and [they] contend that the NTSB’s probable cause determination is erroneous and should be reconsidered." Among those who have come forward is former senior NTSB accident investigator Hank Hughes. He is featured in a new film called TWA Flight 800 that premieres on the premium TV channel EPIX next month.
HANK HUGHES: My report, which was 496 pages in length, or thereabouts, with photographic supplement, was cut and amended without my knowledge. When I did find out about it, I complained. Nothing was done. We were required to provide a factual report, but ordered not to write an analysis.
KRISTINA BORJESSON: What? Could you say that again?
HANK HUGHES: We were directed to write a factual report, but not an analysis.
KRISTINA BORJESSON: What would your analysis have been?
HANK HUGHES: The primary—primary conclusion was the explosive forces came from outside the airplane, not the center fuel tank.
TOM STALCUP: Would that statement have been in your analysis?
HANK HUGHES: If I got the right one.
AMY GOODMAN: That was former NTSB senior accident investigator Hank Hughes from the new documentary, TWA Flight 800, which premieres on EPIX July 17th, exactly 17 years after the crash.
For more, we’re joined here in New York by the film’s director, investigative reporter and former CBS producer Kristina Borjesson. And we’re also joined by Tom Stalcup, the film’s co-producer. He’s also a physicist and co-founder of Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Tom just made it over here from The Today Show, where he was interviewed. Kristina Borjesson, it has been a long haul for you—
KRISTINA BORJESSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —from investigating this for CBS News, where you were ultimately forced out as you tried this investigation. Talk about the significance of the latest information and why the investigators are petitioning to reopen this investigation.
KRISTINA BORJESSON: The significance of it is that it is the hard evidence that has been reviewed and is being presented by the government’s own former, you know, members of the official investigation. And the other thing is, is that for the first time the eyewitnesses are brought in as a credible piece of the investigation. And as you know, in any investigation, it doesn’t matter whether it’s cops or reporters or whatever, the key to those investigations are firsthand sources, evidence and eyewitnesses. And these have been brought together, and that’s why it’s significant. It’s not commentators or...
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And under the NTSB’s own regulations, if there is new evidence that they did not consider previously or direct proof that their conclusion was erroneous, they have the ability to reopen the investigation. So what are the particular—the evidence that they are raising now, these investigators are raising?
KRISTINA BORJESSON: I think that Tom, as our science guy on the film, is...
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Or, Tom, yes, if you could answer that?
TOM STALCUP: Sure. The most significant piece of evidence that we have analyzed, that the NTSB has not analyzed, is the initial detonation that caused the crash. This was recorded by multiple FAA radar sites. And it was consistent and corroborates the eyewitness reports. The eyewitnesses reported something going up, heading out down towards that airplane, a long distance, colliding with it in a perpendicular fashion, detonating near or at the aircraft. Now, once it detonated, it’s just a mess out there, and particles fly along that same trajectory. So you would expect, if that really did happen, you would see evidence of that. And, yes, in fact, the radar evidence—the radar sites along Long Island picked up that exact event—supersonic debris exiting the right side of the—right side of the aircraft, consistent with the trajectory of that object.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from your new film, TWA Flight 800, featuring Jim Speer, former accident investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association, talking about how he took a piece of the airplane and brought it to the FBI field lab for testing.
JIM SPEER: I knocked on the door and said, "I hear you have a machine to test for nitrates in here." And they said, "Yes, we do." And I said, "Can you show me how it works?" And they said, "Sure. We’ll run a test sample for you." And I said, "Well, how about you running my test sample? Swab this piece, and check that for me." And so they did. And, sure enough, it tested positive, which I was sure it would do—positive for residue of high explosions. So, they picked up the phone and called somebody. In 90 seconds, three FBI agents ran in the room in their coats and ties and physically pushed me aside and wouldn’t let me hear the conversation. Then they turned to me and said, "The machine has frequent false positives."
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jim Speer, former accident investigator for Air Line Pilots Association. Tom Stalcup?
TOM STALCUP: Sure. And what we found throughout this documentary, by interviewing the FBI chemists who were aware of that—that EGIS machine that had those explosive detections, they do not have frequent false positives. The positive detection that Jim Speer found within a week of the crash was a confirmed explosive hit on the right wing. That made The New York Times, but quickly disappeared from the government’s investigation—actually physically disappeared, as well.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, the final conclusion of the NTSB was their belief that the cause was an electrical spark that ended up causing an explosion of the fuel tank in the plane?
TOM STALCUP: That’s correct. They believe that it was an actual spark. But again, it’s very important to understand, that’s a low-velocity explosion. They said it was a subsonic deflagration. It’s not even an explosion; it’s more of an eruption. It just kind of went forward. So it was a forward-moving, low-speed eruption. What we have is a sideways-moving, high-speed detonation four times the speed of sound.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s got to one of the eyewitnesses from your film, from TWAFlight 800, featuring some of the eyewitnesses who say they saw the plane explode.
EYEWITNESS 1: Go outside, turn to the left.
EYEWITNESS 2: Just happened to look up in the sky.
EYEWITNESS 1: And I see something that’s going across, right in my line of sight.
EYEWITNESS 3: I actually see something behind a tree line, more or less like my thumb, go up in the air.
EYEWITNESS 4: I saw what appeared to be cheap fireworks.
EYEWITNESS 5: I noticed a streak of light heading up towards the sky.
EYEWITNESS 6: I saw this white light shoot up in the sky.
EYEWITNESS 7: There’s something going up in the sky.
EYEWITNESS 8: This rocket went up in the air.
EYEWITNESS 2: And I seen this white light, and I said, "Oh, someone shot off a flare."
EYEWITNESS 9: And it looked like a flare going up. And then, the very next day, the FBI came to talk to me. It was almost abusive, in a sense. They took me into the back room. They said, "Well, we heard that you saw something. Tell us what you saw." I told them what I saw, and they looked me straight in the face and said, "You did not see that. You saw nothing."
AMY GOODMAN: And other eyewitnesses talked about that kind of abuse. One of the women who we just saw said, Kristina Borjesson, when they came to her, theFBI, just to take her testimony about what she saw, they—after she said this, what did they tell her?
KRISTINA BORJESSON: They said to her, "Well, you have your papers in to become an American citizen, don’t you?" And she said, "Yes." And they said, "Well, if you want to become an American citizen, you’d best be very quiet about this." And she said, "And so, I kept quiet, and I never spoke about it."
AMY GOODMAN: The CIA later released an animated film about the explosion and investigation of TWA Flight 800.
CIA FILM: Of particular concern to FBI investigators were reports from dozens of eyewitnesses who, on the evening of July 17th, recalled seeing an object, usually described as a flare or firework, ascend and culminate in an explosion. Was it a missile? Did foreign terrorists destroy the aircraft? At the request of the FBI, CIA weapons analysts looked into this possibility.
The CIA’s conclusion? The eyewitnesses did not see a missile. Just after the aircraft exploded, it pitched up abruptly and climbed several thousand feet, from 13,800 feet to about 17,000 feet. Those who said they saw something ascend and culminate in an explosion probably saw the burning aircraft ascend and erupt into a fireball, not a missile. To date, there is no evidence that anyone saw a missile shoot down TWAFlight 800.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, that was a CIA film. Tom Stalcup, that film is what got you involved in this case. Where were you when you saw that?
TOM STALCUP: I was on my couch watching TV. And the FBI came on. I said, "Oh, they’re talking about this plane crash. I’ll watch." And then Jim Kallstrom announced this—this video. "Hey, watch this video." And all of a sudden the big emblem of CIA came on and struck me as a little bit odd. And they kept saying, like you saw, "Not a missile." And so I turned to my girlfriend. I said, "Must have been a missile." So, ever since then, we’ve looked into the crash, and in fact it appears that it really was.
AMY GOODMAN: But, so—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and also, it’s kind of—it’s extraordinary to have the CIAdoing what is, in essence, a propaganda video on an internal domestic incident here in the United States, that they say has nothing to do with terrorism or any—or any direct attack on this plane.
TOM STALCUP: I agree. And I think it’s actually illegal to do domestic propaganda. I think they’re only allowed to do that internationally.
KRISTINA BORJESSON: Well, then—yeah, that was an interesting—
AMY GOODMAN: And it was Jim Kallstrom that presenting this video when they were closing up their investigation?
KRISTINA BORJESSON: Yeah. I mean, basically, he presented that video as a reason for the FBI backing out. But, you know, speaking of the CIA involvement, I think it’s really important to—that people know that the CIA was involved, from day two?
TOM STALCUP: Yes.
KRISTINA BORJESSON: Of the crash. From day two of the crash, the CIA was involved to handle the eyewitnesses.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And not the FBI?
KRISTINA BORJESSON: Not the—well, the FBI was going around collecting witness statements, which, by the way, it’s very interesting, because they don’t record the statements when they get them. They just write up notes, and then they write up their notes of the investigations, as opposed—the interviews, as opposed to actually recording the interviews, which is—which the NTSB does do.
AMY GOODMAN: Wouldn’t the CIA be involved if they were looking to see if it was a foreign terrorist?
KRISTINA BORJESSON: Well, yes, but as witness analysts?
AMY GOODMAN: You mean questioning the analysts.
KRISTINA BORJESSON: Yes.
TOM STALCUP: Yeah, well, let me just respond to that.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mm-hmm.
TOM STALCUP: In the very beginning, I think they were doing the right thing. They were actually giving advice, like, "Oh, this is what a foreign terrorist missile would do." But soon thereafter, within a couple weeks, their focus changed to providing, you know, technical assistance to the FBI to explaining to the FBI what the eyewitnesses saw. And as I say, actually contrary to what the FBI investigators were determining, they actually were coming out with a report, within two weeks of the crash, saying that it was most likely a missile.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s go to a clip of former FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom, who led the criminal investigation into TWA Flight 800. Here he is speaking on CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper on Wednesday, responding to a question about the claims made by the former investigators in your film.
JAMES KALLSTROM: I think it’s preposterous, quite frankly, Jake. You know, I understand now, just from the little bit I read in the paper, that they’re retired. You know, if they felt that way back then, they could have come to me. I was—you know, I was someone desiring to get to the bottom of this thing, believe me. And I had a reputation for not—you know, not pussyfooting around. Yet, it seems like they’ve comfortably waited 'til they have their pensions before they became whistleblowers. So I think it's a bunch of bull crap. I don’t really understand that, if they felt that strongly. And I don’t—knowing the people at NTSB and the science that they brought to it, you know, for them to disregard something that was important or correct, I just don’t see that that’s possible. I have no idea why they came forward now, other than the fact maybe it’s a good time for, you know, this idea of blowing whistles and making documentaries.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you respond to James Kallstrom’s comments about the investigators in the film, Kristina, and also talk about the claim that they came forward because this is, quote, "a good time for the idea of blowing whistles"?
KRISTINA BORJESSON: I mean, first of all, let me just say this to—if he says that they could have come to him, these guys—Hank Hughes actually testified before a judicial committee about the problems with the FBI’s investigation. He complained—for example, Tom Thurman, who was going around pulling out pieces of—you know, pieces of debris from the seats, without any regard for trajectory, which is very important. Ricky Hahn, part of Mr. Kallstrom’s team, who was banging on pieces of debris, which is, of course, altering evidence. So, why would they want to come to Mr. Kallstrom and his team? They were deeply troubled by what they were doing. And they did try and speak out at that time. So, I mean, he’s wrong on both of those counts.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s interesting. What he might be right about, he says, what? They wanted to wait to get their pensions before they spoke out. Maybe that’s true, when you see what happens to people today, whistleblowers within agencies, that they were afraid for their livelihoods.
KRISTINA BORJESSON: I think that was only one piece of it, because if you’re trying to blow the whistle and you get smacked while you’re doing it, you’re not inclined to continue doing it, yes, until you retire.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip of Richard Bott of the Naval Air Warfare Center responding to the claim a missile could have caused the explosion. This is also from the film, TWA Flight 800.
RICHARD BOTT: It’s possible that several types of missiles could have been in the vicinity of TWA Flight 800 at the time of the—the mishap. But the possibility that that occurred is—is hard to imagine.
AMY GOODMAN: What about that, Tom Stalcup?
TOM STALCUP: Yes, he actually wrote a report for the NTSB called "The Missile Impact Analysis Report." And in that report, he says, "Well, there’s no evidence, except there is this hole in the left side of the plane, which seems to be—if it was anything, it was a missile coming down from above. And that just seems," like he said here, "hard to imagine." Well, that’s exactly what the eyewitnesses reported, something coming from the left.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we reached out to the FBI and the NTSB, asking them to join us on this morning’s show. The FBI has not responded. The NTSB declined to join us; however, they did release a statement Wednesday saying they would review the petition asking them to reopen the investigation into the explosion. They wrote, quote, "The TWA Flight 800 investigation lasted four years and remains one of the NTSB’s most detailed investigations. Investigators took great care reviewing, documenting and analyzing facts and data and the NTSB held a five-day hearing to gather additional facts before determining the probable cause of the accident during a two-day Board meeting."
According to the NTSB’s report on the explosion, quote, "the probable cause of theTWA flight 800 accident was an explosion of the center wing fuel tank (CWT), resulting from ignition of the flammable fuel/air mixture in the tank. The source of ignition energy for the explosion could not be determined with certainty, but, of the sources evaluated by the investigation, the most likely was a short circuit outside of the [CWT] that allowed excessive voltage to enter it through electrical wiring associated with the fuel quantity indication system."
Now I want to play a clip from the film TWA Flight 800 of Rocky Miller, accident investigator for the flight attendants’ union, and Jim Speer, accident investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association, responding to that finding.
ROCKY MILLER: We never found any of that. We didn’t find any evidence in the wiring on the aircraft that would have indicated that a spark occurred inside the center wing tank that would blow it up.
KRISTINA BORJESSON: Did anybody in the investigation find this wiring?
ROCKY MILLER: Not to my knowledge, no.
JIM SPEER: The only wiring in the center fuel tank is to the fuel quantity gauge, and that’s a fine wire meant for milliamps is. The main power on the airplane is 115 volts AC, It would have taken 1,200 volts to arc the fuel quantity probe, and there’s no 1,200-volt electricity on the airplane, outside of the engine igniters. And that’s in—it’s individual to each engine. So, the cause of the ignition of the center fuel tank had to be something other than airplane electronics.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Jim Speer of the Air Line Pilots Association. Your response to some of the NTSB’s claims, as well as their rebuttal?
TOM STALCUP: Yes, well, you know, the center wing tank vapors could have exploded, but this isn’t news. I mean, Boeing knew this. They actually design their tanks to always assume that they have explosive vapors in those tanks. What they do is they design it so there’s no way high voltage can get into these tanks. The wires that go to those lines that he was talking about, those low-voltage lines, are protected by a nylon sheet that’s impregnated with varnish. To have any kind of chafe cutting through that nylon and then getting that short circuit, I just can’t see how that’s possible. And, actually, the NTSB, sorry, has never duplicated that spark from airplane electronics.
AMY GOODMAN: And this issue of the naval exercise that was taking place, Kristina?
KRISTINA BORJESSON: Well, I mean, that’s part—we put that in the circumstantial evidence pile. And we don’t discuss it, because it isn’t hard evidence. It isn’t firsthand source. And unless an—and that’s why we are submitting this petition, because it is something that should be examined further. But, you know, we’re—
AMY GOODMAN: What was going on at the time?
KRISTINA BORJESSON: There was a military exercise going on at the time in the area, and they had activated some warning areas, some warning areas there. And there were all kinds of vessels out there. But, again, we don’t—we don’t go there, because there is no—we don’t have—we don’t have any hard evidence.
AMY GOODMAN: So why call to reopen this?
KRISTINA BORJESSON: Because it needs to be looked at, because the actual cause of the crash is an ordnance explosion outside the airplane. So, obviously, that’s not a center wing fuel tank explosion.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But there is a—you do have factual evidence of the role that the Navy played in the original investigation, don’t you, in terms of what you found out about their role?
KRISTINA BORJESSON: Well, I mean, they were—they were a huge part of the recovery. They recovered the wreckage. It was very interesting that Navy divers went and dove by themselves for a few days before they allowed the NTSB divers—theNYPD divers to go in. The CBS’s law enforcement consultant, Paul Ragonese, who was friendly with those guys, they told him that. So, there were some odd things going on from the very beginning.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, this film is going to air, your film, Kristina Borjesson and Tom Stalcup, on July 17th, 17 years after the explosion of TWA Flight 800. And that’s the name of the film, TWA Flight 800. It will air on EPIX on July 17th. That does it for this segment. We’ll continue to follow this story. Stay with us.