Terminal Event: A Novel by James Stewart Thayer

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BOOK REVIEW. This new air crash novel by thriller writer James Thayer is loosely based on the TWA 800 disaster. It depicts the story of a complex air crash investigation as seen through the eyes of a former NTSB investigator whose wife was a victim of the crash. According to AVweb's Phil Kolczynski an attorney who has been involved in many crash cases at the FAA, DOT, and in private practice Thayer's latest page-turner is the best of its genre in recent memory, offering unparalleled technical accuracy, believable characters, a tight plot with plenty of action, and a surprise ending.

ATISIn the wake of the TWA 800 air crash disaster, thriller writer James Thayer tantalizes us with a technophile’s "whodunit." The story opens with a "former" National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator wandering through the wreckage of an airline crash site in the Pacific Northwest. We see the carnage through the eyes of an accident reconstruction expert. Bodies torn asunder give up clues how the breakup occurred. Airframe debris tangled like spaghetti reveals possible causes of the crash.

Terminal Event
A Novel by James Stewart Thayer

Hardcover — 352 pages (June 1999)
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0684842106
List price: $25.00

Former investigator Joe Durant quit the NTSB because of crash gore depression. His former colleagues want him back because of his skill at determining "probable causes." He must now solve one last case — his wife was one of the victims in the crash.

The kicker is that NTSB investigator Durant must act as liaison with the FBI, which wants to control the investigation. Durant, a former Naval Flight Officer with an advanced degree in aeronautical engineering, is paired up with Linda Dillon, a curvaceous FBI agent, whose "cop" skills complement Durant’s techno-intellectual prowess. Both are having marital difficulties and although they serve as buffers for rival federal agencies, they soon develop mutual respect and perhaps more.

Best Accident Investigation Novel Yet?

Terminal EventSeattle lawyer James Stewart Thayer’s previous novels have been highly successful because of his ability to write fact-packed suspenseful stories that capture the technical lore of the hero’s trade.

Thayer’s "White Star," a masterful account of the trade craft and psyche of a former military sniper, rivalled Stephen Hunter’s "Point of Impact" and "Master Sniper" as one of the most factually satisfying "one shot, one kill" adventures ever written. In "Terminal Event" Thayer has shown the same mastery, with a forensic thriller delving into the investigative process that follows an airline disaster.

"Terminal Event" is not the first airplane accident investigation novel. "Airframe" by scientific thriller writer Michael Crichton of "ER" fame, "Scatterpath" by Maralys Wills and "Human Error" by Tom Casey are all good. Thayer’s book is better. The combination of believable characters, unparalled accuracy, a tight plot, plenty of action and a surprise ending enables "Terminal Event" to out climb "Airframe," the previous best seller in this field.

Plot Parallels TWA 800

Inspector Durant quickly develops a theory to explain the cause of the crash: Cracks in the insulation of wiring bundles leading to fuel measuring gauges in the fuel tanks could cause a spark to ignite fuel vapor. The FBI has a different theory based on evidence suggesting sabotage. A letter has been received that says "another plane will come down in 10 days." The FBI treats it as a serious threat because the letter contains a clue implying that only the sender knows the cause of the crash. The pressure is on for the best and brightest in the FBI, but another development suggests terrorism.

CIA intelligence agents and operatives from other countries are brought in because it is discovered that Saudi Arabian intelligence officers were travelling under concealed identities on the flight. A Hezballah terrorist with a holy obsession to kill the Saudi officers might have planted a bomb.

In TWA 800 we had a missile shoot-down theory publicized by a Frenchman named "Pierre." In "Terminal Event" the missile theory comes from a scruffy poacher, who convinces the country’s foremost lie detector specialist that he has observed a missile strike the airplane.

The author preserves the French connection by making the airliner French-built instead of a Boeing Seattle-made product. Thayer, a Seattle lawyer, portrays the monopolistic Boeing as an altruistic company that offers its resources to the NTSB to aid with the investigation into the crash of the French-made airliner.

FBI Follies

The FBI’s involvement in the investigation provides the most amusing characters and action sequences. Somehow the FBI decides that the threatening letter must come from a group of anti-government Idaho militia types. Because Durant serves as a liaison, he gets to accompany wonder woman Dillon in the field investigating the "backwoods boys." These guys are so "bad" that they stuff cue balls in the mouths of "Hells Angels" and booby trap their own homes to protect against government snooping. After an FBI undercover agent has his head blown off while trespassing in their lair without a warrant, investigator Dillon resolves to bring them to justice. When they are finally cornered and the FBI begins its standard negotiating process, she snatches the bull horn from her boss and declares that the "backwoods boys" have five minutes to come out with their hands up or else! The ensuing scene plays out the fantasy of every cop in America.

While Inspector Dillon is busting the bad guys, NTSB investigator Durant is embarrassed in front of all the government agencies. The president of the French manufacturing company, a lawyer and a fuel expert prove that a spark from the wiring in the fuel tank could NOT have caused the explosion.

The only way Inspector Durant can salvage his tarnished reputation is to find an overlooked piece of evidence that sheds light on the true perpetrator of this disaster. A dramatic but somewhat unpalatable conclusion caps off this tightly written forensic thriller with the right measure of suspense, humor and technical wizardry.

A Fine Read

Anyone who is interested in aviation, forensic investigation or just a good action mystery will enjoy this novel. The characters are believable, and the author’s descriptions of people and procedures reveal a keen insight into the aircraft accident investigative process. We get to participate in cockpit voice recorder playback analysis. We learn about microscopic analysis by a metallurgist to detect explosion-related evidence of "cratering" found in metal components. Thayer also shows us how the NTSB uses the latest computer-animated reconstructive techniques.

Because the author uses the TWA 800 disaster as background for his plot, much of his story echoes contemporary news. Investigator Durant’s theory comes right out of the May 1998 Federal Aviation Administration Order requiring the inspection of Boeing 737s for the possibility of frayed fuel system wiring. In May 1999, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed a similar requirement on the operators of more than 1,000 Boeing 727s. Boeing is currently being sued by plaintiffs from the TWA 800 disaster on a similar theory.

As long as you are not a card-carrying member of the "Fear of Flying Fraternity," I recommend that you pick up a copy of "Terminal Event" for your next flight. You can enjoy the trip before your next "on- time arrival" — just don’t tell the passenger next to you what it’s about.

NOTE: The issues discussed in this article do not constitute legal advice. My objective is to alert you to some common issues so that you can avoid or minimize legal trouble. Anyone with an aviation law problem should be guided by the advice of his or her lawyer, under applicable federal and state laws, after a full and confidential disclosure of all relevant facts.