Why I'll Be Watching the New TWA 800 Documentary

Normally I would probably dismiss out of hand claims about "new" information proving a conspiracy theory. In this case, I'm intrigued.



The reconstructed TWA Boeing 747 in 1997.

Normally if I heard about a documentary that purported to uncover "new" evidence about the TWA Flight 800 disaster, I would roll my eyes. But I'm actually quite interested to see the film and am approaching it with an open mind. Here's why.

The crash of Flight 800 into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996, was the first big aviation story I covered as a journalist. I can still clearly remember standing on the bridge that crosses the Shinnecock Inlet and watching as scallop trawlers brought mangled pieces of the Boeing 747 to shore. It was unsettling to think that 230 people had lost their lives aboard what was left of that airplane. After the most expensive accident investigation in its history, the NTSB four years later determined a spark caused an explosion in the center fuel tank, bringing the jetliner down. I was satisfied.

Investigators dismissed speculation that a Navy missile downed Flight 800, going so far as to call it a loony conspiracy theory. I didn't give much credence to the eyewitness accounts of those who saw the airplane explode from the shore, but there was always something that troubled me about the investigation. Namely, that people with deep knowledge of aviation or the government felt the missile theory was correct and the government was lying.

Pierre Salinger, the former press secretary to President John F. Kennedy, was one of the strongest supporters of the missile theory. He claimed he had seen proof that the Navy shot down the 747 and then attempted to cover it up. I remember he was widely criticized for his views. I certainly never tried to defend him. An exasperated Salinger eventually made good on a promise to leave the U.S.A. behind and move to France. He died there in 2004.

Now we learn that former NTSB and TWA investigators who weren’t allowed to provide dissenting opinions when the original accident report was released are speaking out. Their story will be told in the documentary that will air next month on the 17th anniversary of the crash. According to statements they apparently make in the film, they believe the official explanation is wrong and the explosion that brought down Flight 800 came from “outside the airplane.” They claim to have proof.

The filmmakers are being rather coy about what that might mean, but everybody knows they’re talking about a missile. I’d probably dismiss the film before even watching it as rubbish put out by people seeking to grab some headlines with a controversial docudrama based on dubious speculation and debunked data. In the past month, however, we’ve learned about the government examining phone calls of journalists, collecting telephone data of millions of Americans, spying on email and Internet traffic through the NSA’s not-so-secret Prism program, the IRS’s targeting of conservative political groups and, now, law enforcement personnel who are detaining and searching the airplanes of innocent pilots without warrants.

James Kallstrom, who headed the investigation into the TWA 800 crash for the FBI, reacted angrily to the renewed claims that a missile brought down the flight. "It's just outrageous and preposterous," he told ABC News. "It has absolutely no connection to the truth, and will not stand the test of time and will not stand the test of experts."

According to the filmmakers, six members of the original accident investigation team will provide new information detailing why their theory is plausible and the NTSB should reopen the investigation. I still don't buy the missile theory and, as I said, normally I wouldn't pay much attention to such claims. But after what we’ve all learned over the past month about our government and its difficulty with telling the truth, I'll certainly be tuning in on July 17.

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