Monday, July 18, 2011

When TWA Flight 800 Went Down

In the waning hours of July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 began what was supposed to be a rather routine flight from New York to Paris.

But there was nothing routine about it.

Less than 15 minutes after takeoff, the plane exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. All 230 people aboard were killed — including, as I recall, a group of high school students from a small town in Pennsylvania, all members of their school's French Club, and about half a dozen chaperones.

For four years, the National Transportation Safety Board reviewed the wreckage that had been retrieved and finally issued a report, in August 2000, that cited several possible causes of the explosion but pointed the finger at none specifically.

The NTSB would only say that some causes were more likely than others. It could never completely rule out anything.

Nevertheless, there was an unofficial (and rather popular) suspect at the time — and, since the cause of the explosion was never really established, it may well be considered a suspect by some folks today.

In fact, I'm almost certain that it is a suspect. All you have to do is run a search on Google or Yahoo! and you will find all sorts of sites devoted to conspiracy theories about how Flight 800 came to its fiery end.

That suspect was terrorism. It was a rather nameless and faceless sort of thing then. Five years later, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Americans would see the face of bin Laden and think of al–Qaeda whenever terrorism was mentioned, but it was much more vague in 1996.

In July 1996, many people thought the explosion may have been intended to force officials to postpone the Summer Olympics, which were due to begin in Atlanta on July 19.

Proponents of this particular theory speculated that a terrorist armed with a missile launcher could have fired at the plane from the ground.

That seemed a little farfetched to me at the time, but 15 years later, after seeing some of the things I have seen and knowing that the plan for hijacking planes and crashing them into American landmarks was being hatched at about the same time as the downing of Flight 800, I'm not as sure.

I still have plenty of doubts that a missile launcher was used in 1996 — but, after seeing attempts to blow up airplanes with explosives–laden sneakers and jockey shorts, it doesn't seem so outlandish that terrorists might try to use a rocket launcher of some kind, even a makeshift one, to shoot at a plane.

And even some folks who dismissed the idea of terrorism as too off the wall nevertheless suggested there may have been military maneuvers in the area and that someone, either deliberately or accidentally, may have fired a missile.

To be candid, the military maneuvers theory was what struck me as being really off the wall. I mean, military maneuvers? On Long Island?

Terrorism made sense — but only marginally. The Oklahoma City bombing was slightly more than a year old. The first attack on the World Trade Center had happened about 3½ years earlier. Terrorism on American soil wasn't a common occurrence in 1996, and references to it were still rather vague — but people did think about it when some things happened, and they wondered if it played any role.

The explosion of TWA 800 was one of those things.

Eventually, the NTSB concluded that
"[t]he source of ignition energy for the explosion could not be determined with certainty, but ... the most likely was a short circuit ... that allowed excessive voltage to enter ... through electrical wiring associated with the fuel quantity indication system."

As you may recall — or, if you aren't old enough to remember it, you can probably imagine — that was a bit too inconclusive (not to mention too technical) for some people.

Whenever there are gaps in the official account of something big, there will be conspiracy theories. And the gaps in the Flight 800 story have spawned something of an online cottage industry that caters to those who devoutly believe (or want to believe) that flight was brought down by a conspiracy.

Many times, such gaps are innocent, but sometimes they are clues that something is being concealed. And the longer the questions go unanswered, the stronger the belief in the conspiracy becomes.

The investigation of the downing of Flight 800 answered most of those questions, but some lingered.

I suspect whatever brought it down will remain a mystery forever.

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