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Investigators Say TWA Crash Not Caused by Criminal Act

By Don Phillips
The Washington Post

The National Transportation Safety Board's hearing into the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 heard a clear message Monday from board investigators, metallurgists, military analysts and pathologists: There is compelling evidence that the plane was not brought down by a missile or bomb.

The first day of a week of hearings into the July 17, 1996, crash off the Long Island coast that killed 230 people was devoted to an excruciatingly detailed effort to prove that there were no telltale metallurgical "signatures" of a high-velocity explosion, no aircraft holes big enough to show typical missile damage, no evidence in or on any of the bodies, nor any other hint of even the remotest possibility that any criminal act brought down the Paris-bound plane.

Witnesses also were able to provide some assurance to the dozens of family members watching in the large Civic Center auditorium that their relatives did not suffer when the plane's center fuel tank exploded and the plane began breaking up.

As the audience fell into a nervous hush, former Army physician and engineer Dennis Shanahan said that his analysis showed that at least a small number of passengers did not die instantly, but under questioning he said he doubted strongly that any passenger in any section of the plane was conscious long enough to have any idea what had happened to them.

"We believe that all these people were almost immediately incapacitated," he said. "Whether they were dead or not, it is highly unlikely they were conscious or aware."

At Monday's gathering, the hearing room walls were hung with diagrams and cross-sections of the doomed plane and maps of the underwater debris field where the craft fell. Magnified images of the NTSB witnesses, dwarfed on the stage of the hearing room, were flashed on two large screens.

Family members, at their request, were provided special seating in the hearing room with desk space for taking notes and using laptop computers, said NTSB spokesman Peter Goelz.

"We want something positive out of all this," said Eleanor Seaman, 47, of Clifton Park, N.Y., director and secretary of the 400-member Families of TWA Flight 800 Association, formed after the crash as a nonprofit support organization. She said the organization is pushing, among other things, for improved airline safety to avoid future tragedies like that of Flight 800.

The board also showed several dramatic video simulations of the explosion and plunge to the ocean, based on exhaustive metallurgical and aerodynamic evidence from numerous sources.

The analysis found that the exploding fuel tank did not blast upward into the cabin. Instead, the force of the explosion went forward to the right and down, blowing a large hole in the bottom of the fuselage.

Within five seconds, the two-deck forward portion of the 747 including the cockpit broke away. The simulation showed that the rear section including the wings and engines continued to fly, climbing about 1,200 feet to about 15,000 feet, banking left and then right before turning over and beginning a high-speed dive to the Atlantic Ocean. An earlier CIA simulation, based mainly on eyewitnesses rather than data, estimated the plane climbed to 17,000 feet.

The rear section flew 49 seconds from explosion to impact, breaking into a huge fireball of burning fuel on the way down. Oddly, the forward section took 45 seconds longer to hit the water, falling straight down and behind the rear section.

One of the board simulations, like the CIA simulation, clearly illustrated why some witnesses might have mistaken the climbing, burning rear section for a missile streaking upward.

Richard Bott, an analyst of naval air warfare at China Lake, Calif., said he had concluded after exhaustive study that no missile hit the aircraft. He said the typical damage pattern, including large holes, is simply not present on the reconstructed wreckage.

Shanahan was one of a parade of witnesses who said he found no evidence of a bomb or missile. He said that his "bio-mechanical analysis" of the aircraft interior showed damage too random to be a bomb, and bodies showed no signs of a high-velocity explosion.

Board investigator James Wilde said that every scrap of wreckage had been examined by numerous experts and nothing at all had been found to indicate a missile or bomb.

"This is some of the most examined metal there is anywhere in the world," he said.