Barring an unexpected discovery of new evidence, the FBI has decided to end its investigation of the crash of TWA Flight 800, concluding that there is no evidence that a bomb, missile or other form of sabotage brought down the plane off Long Island 16 months ago, sources say.
The decision to drop the criminal phase of the investigation is tentatively scheduled to be announced at FBI New York headquarters Nov. 13, sources said. It comes after a final round of tests on the plane by independent metallurgical experts failed to reveal any evidence of bomb or missile damage on the jet’s skin or inside the plane, the sources said.
“There are just no stones left to be turned over,” said one official, who asked not to be named. “They feel they have turned over every stone that could prove it was a criminal act without finding anything. It would be pointless and a waste of money to go on.”
The FBI decision to pull out of the investigation, unless new leads of a criminal act are discovered, leaves the National Transportation Safety Board to determine the cause of the crash. Though no conclusion has been reached, safety investigators have said for months that the explosion almost certainly was caused by a mechanical malfunction.
The NTSB has said that the explosion that brought down the plane occurred in the jet’s almost-empty center fuel tank, where a spark may have touched off volatile fuel vapor. But there has been no conclusion as to what caused the spark, with investigators’ theories ranging from faulty wiring to static electricity.
The NTSB plans to hold hearings in Baltimore beginning Dec. 8, releasing the results of its investigation and hearing from witnesses, outside experts and its own staffers. Relatives of several crash victims Sunday said they had expected the FBI’s withdrawal from the investigation and were looking forward to attending the hearings.
FBI spokesman Joseph Valiquette, chief FBI investigator James Kallstrom and NTSB spokesman Peter Goelz all declined to comment on the decision to end the FBI probe.
The jet bound from New York to Paris exploded over the ocean July 17, 1996, killing all 270 people on board, immediately touching off speculation that it had been destroyed by a terrorist attack or an errant military missile.
But no evidence of either such cause has been uncovered, and in the latest tests metallurgists, including retired Alcoa scientists working as independent consultants, concluded that all the holes inside the plane and on its skin were caused by the disintegration of the aircraft, not the explosion of a bomb or missile, sources said. The metallurgists’ findings were no surprise, as FBI Director Louis Freeh and Kallstrom already had said that an accident was the most likely cause of the crash.
Other metallurgical experts already had examined the wreckage for definitive traces of blast damage or explosives without success. In addition, tests in which explosions were set off by United States and British military experts near airplane skins left damage unlike that found on the TWA wreckage. Reports that traces of explosives were found in the plane were later discounted as the residue left from testing bomb-sniffing dogs at the St. Louis airport.