The FBI said Tuesday that a 16-month probe into the TWA Flight 800 crash has turned up no evidence that a criminal act brought down the jumbo jet, leaving mechanical failure as the most likely cause of the 1996 disaster.
Eager to dispel lingering suspicions that a missile destroyed the Boeing 747, the FBI also released an unusual video simulation of the flight’s final minutes off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., that showed how the streaking lights reported by hundreds of witnesses were caused by the doomed aircraft’s final lurch forward and cascades of burning jet fuel.
The Paris-bound jet blew up over the Atlantic Ocean just 12 minutes after departing from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 people on board. The tragedy, just before the opening of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, raised widespread suspicion - even among top federal investigators - that the fiery disaster could have been the result of a terrorist act.
Given the magnitude of the disaster and the fears it provoked, James K. Kallstrom, the FBI assistant director who headed the criminal inquiry, said at a news conference Tuesday which essentially closed the investigation: “We want people to know we left no stone unturned. … In fact, we looked under each stone 10 times.”
He said more than 7,000 interviews were conducted here and abroad by the FBI, more than 3,000 leads provided by the public were pursued and some 2,000 chemical swabs were taken from parts of the wreckage to look for traces of explosives. Every piece of cargo aboard the flight was traced from its point of origin to the jet’s cargo holds, and every worker who touched the plane or anything that went into it - including the on-board movies - was checked out.
Kallstrom said the investigation, which cost between $14 million and $20 million, now is considered inactive and will remain that way unless new evidence suggesting wrongdoing comes to light.
While the FBI’s conclusions may not convince the large number of conspiracy buffs who have fastened onto the plane’s demise, the conclusions did appear to satisfy many of the victims’ families, who have met frequently with investigators from the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board since Flight 800 went down.
Joseph Lychner of Houston, whose wife and two daughters died in the explosion, was at Tuesday’s briefing. He said he is “absolutely satisfied. … I’m glad that the public can witness it as well now and be as convinced as we are that it was not a bomb or a missile but that it’s definitely a mechanical malfunction.”
The victims’ families will turn their attention to a five-day hearing by the National Transportation Safety Board next month in Baltimore.
Investigators for the agency have determined that the explosion that destroyed the plane occurred when fuel vapors in the jet’s massive center fuel tank ignited. But the safety board has not been able to identify the cause of that explosion, although recent studies have focused on the possibility that defective electrical wiring generated a fatal spark.
Lychner said many of the families will pursue civil litigation against TWA and Boeing. “It makes me feel better to know who we go after to seek justice,” Lychner said.
In the days after the crash, when divers still were bringing up pieces of the wreckage, Kallstrom had predicted confidently that the mystery of the disaster would be resolved quickly and hinted that terrorism was the likely cause. Investigators had expected to find parts of the plane that clearly would show marks of a bomb explosion or missile impact.
But by late last year, with about 90 percent of the plane recovered, examined and reassembled like a jigsaw puzzle with nearly a million pieces, the expected evidence had not appeared. At that point, Kallstrom said Tuesday, investigators began to realize that instead of solving a mystery, they might have to prove a negative: that no criminal act was at fault.
One of the most difficult aspects of that effort involved understanding what exactly had been seen by so many people in the sky off Long Island on that July night.
What the witnesses heard turned out to be critical to understanding what they saw. Most of them reported seeing streaks of light in the sky followed by a loud roar and then a huge fireball.
However, because sound travels much more slowly than light, they heard the sound of the center fuel tank erupting well after the fact. That made some witnesses think that the flash had been something that caused the explosion.
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