TWA 800: Do We Really Need to Go There Again?
Conspiracy theories are a little like mold: It doesn't take much to get them started and once established, they're all but impossible to eradicate. The crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island in July 1996 has proven rich soil indeed for a perennial crop of nut cases, wild-eyed lunatics and foil-hat purveyors. The latest is a new documentary that will air this month on the Epix network whose producers claim that the NTSB and FBI had incontrovertible evidence that 800 was brought down not by a fuel tank explosion but by an external explosion, suggesting but not actually saying: missile.
I can only hope that this new effort summons more credibility than a previous documentary on the subject produced in 2001, the ominously named Silenced: TWA 800 and the Subversion of Justice. (See it here.) Despite rather shoddy journalism, that one pulled no punches, arguing that not one, but two missiles were fired at 800 and that investigators intentionally manipulated physical evidence to disguise the fact pattern, going so far as to flatten the recovered tank sections to match the claim of an external explosion. The documentary claimed that the Clinton administration stage managed the investigation to produce the "safest political outcome." It was less clear on why a mechanical failure was more politically acceptable than a terrorist plot, although one can understand that if a junior Navy OOD got a little jiggy with the keys to a Standard missile, you might want to keep a lid on that. Never mind that there were no naval ships with that capability in the area.
For the new documentary, the producers have lassoed some credible witnesses, including Hank Hughes, a former NTSB investigator involved in the Flight 800 probe. He says in the film's trailer that he doubts the NTSB's conclusion and explains that FBI agents were all over the investigation, including sneaking into the hangar in the wee hours where the 747 was being reassembled. This is not a new revelation; friction between the FBI and NTSB was widely reported contemporaneously until a little over a year after the crash, when the FBI declared there was no evidence of crime or terrorism and summarily and decisively left the NTSB to finish its work.
That work concluded that an explosion in the 747's center tank was the most likely cause of the accident, although the board never pinned down an ignition source. In the years since, there have been a handful of similar explosions, all on the ground. Multiple witness accounts of bright points of light and smoke trails left the missile conspiracy hanging like a persistent, foul odor. Silenced mined this vein to exhaustion and I won't be surprised if the new documentary does the same. The original documentary said the NTSB never interviewed any of the more than 600 witnesses. (It pointedly doesn't say that all of them claimed to see missile trails.)
Conspiracy theories take root in the smallest unexplained facts while ignoring or minimizing those that are well established. People inclined to believe—indeed, to seek out—conspiracies, are often immune to rational thought.
The NTSB said today it's keeping an open mind on entreaties to reopen the TWA 800 investigation. I can do the same, but just barely. Organizations can suffer from group think and reach the wrong conclusions for the right reasons. I'm skeptical that happened with 800, but, well, show me. If ever there was a case to invoke Occam's razor, TWA 800 strikes me as one. We'll have to wait to see what the latest findings reveal but I'm preparing myself to be underwhelmed.