The FBI has formally ended its criminal investigation into the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, saying that it had “found absolutely no evidence” of a criminal act, according to a letter the agency’s top investigator in the case sent to families of crash victims.
Law enforcement officials said on Wednesday night that the letter, signed by James Kallstrom, head of the New York office of the FBI, was sent so that the families would not be taken by surprise when the agency made its official announcement of the end of the criminal investigation next Tuesday.
A separate investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board into whether mechanical failure caused the explosion will continue, officials said.
In the letter, Kallstrom said his agents had interviewed more than 7,000 people, conducted extensive forensic tests and had undertaken “the largest aircraft reconstruction mock-up in commercial aviation history” without finding any evidence to point to criminal wrongdoing.
“In sum,” he said, “every lead has been covered, all possible avenues of investigation exhaustively explored and every resource of the United States Government has been brought to bear in this investigation.”
The FBI has repeatedly said that it had no evidence that the Boeing 747 was downed by a bomb or missile, but the letter to families would mark the formal declaration of the end of its investigation.
The FBI’s investigation began minutes after the jumbo jet burst into a fireball, killing all 230 passengers on board and scattering wreckage across a five-square-mile area of the Atlantic Ocean, about 10 miles off Long Island.
The letter, which was mailed to families overseas on Monday and to those in the United States on Wednesday, was an apparent effort to avoid criticism from the families, who have often assailed officials for failing to keep them advised of developments in the case. On Wednesday night, though, several relatives of victims refrained from any criticism of the agency.
“They did the best they can,” said Richard Penzer, whose 49-year-old sister, Judy, died in the crash. “They’re not hiding anything. I don’t think they’d have the nerve to.”
Lennie Ostachiewicz, whose 49-year-old mother and 8-year-old sister died in the crash, said he did not believe the numerous conspiracy theories that that have cropped up in the absence of a formal declaration of a cause of the crash.
“I feel it was a malfunction,” he said. “I feel the investigation is complete because I don’t think there was anything criminal in terms of a missile or a bomb.”
As more of the plane was retrieved and assembled it became more clear to FBI officials that the plane was not destroyed by a powerful bomb or a large missile. FBI investigators even considered the possibility that a missile exploded near the plane, touching off the fumes.
One of the final obstacles in the FBI reaching its conclusion was trying to explain the dozens of accounts from witnesses of lights streaking in the sky before the plane exploded. The FBI was aided by CIA technicians who now believe that what most of the witnesses saw was the plane breaking apart over the ocean.
The safety board, meanwhile, has explored a variety of theories for how a mechanical malfunction could have created a spark to set off the explosion. Among the theories it is pursuing have been the possibility of a build-up of static electricity within the center fuel tank or an electrical malfunction.
Since late last year, NTSB investigators have said the destruction of the plane was caused by an accumulation of jet fuel fumes in the center fuel tank of the Boeing 747. But as yet investigators have been unable to determine what ignited those fumes.
Currently, the NTSB is focusing on the possibility that a surge of electricity carried by wires into the center fuel tank may have caused the spark that ignited the fumes.