The piece below was written by Politico reporter Kathryn A. Wolfe following a briefing held by the National Transportation Safety Board at the NTSB training center where the mock-up of what remains of TWA 800 is housed.
Politico: “NTSB: No Evidence of a Missile Strike in TWA Flight 800 Probe”
Kathryn A. Wolfe, POLITICO
ASHBURN, Va. — Federal safety investigators still won’t say whether they’ll reopen their investigation into the explosion that took down TWA Flight 800 in July 1996. But they want reporters to get the message: It wasn’t a missile.
The agency has no radar evidence for any kind of target “intercepting” the plane before the fatal blast, the NTSB’s Joseph Kolly said during a Tuesday media briefing meant as refresher on a disaster that has inspired years of persistent conspiracy theories.
COMMENT: Misleading. This falsely implies 1) that if a missile were in the air radar would have recorded it; and 2) that no evidence of a missile was on radar. Before they explode, the rounded stealth-like missile surfaces are virtually impossible for civilian FAA radar to record because these sites are programmed to filter out small objects such as flocks of birds so that air traffic controllers can focus on tracking aircraft. The NTSB confirmed this when they launched missiles in a “Missile Visibility Study” in Florida in 2000. No missile was visible until it exploded. Once a missile explodes, its stealth-like smooth surfaces are gone and the jagged missile parts can be recorded by FAA radar sites. This is precisely what radar recorded when TWA Flight 800 crashed–the asymmetric detonation of an object near the jetliner and on a trajectory consistent with the flight path prescribed to this object before it exploded by many eyewitnesses.
The exploded missile chaffing was calculated moving perpendicular to the jetliner at a speed of Mach 4 or more, which is at least four times the speed of sound. While the radar data is shown in the film and in a recent petition to the NTSB, the “TWA Flight 800” investigative team would be happy to personally show and explain the radar data to Dr. Kolly and anyone else.
Politico: Witness testimony was not consistent with any kind of missile strike, he said. Neither were the patterns of burns and pitting among the passengers or seats. “Ultimately, we wound up ruling out a bomb or missile strike,” Kolly said.
COMMENT: Inaccurate and Misleading. There are numerous examples of witnesses reporting seeing objects they describe as “rocket,” “missile” and “flare.” A sampling of them are documented in our film, “TWA Flight 800.” The eyewitnesses with military backgrounds whose accounts were summarized by federal investigators in their reports (two who were flying a mission nearby at the time) said they saw a missile take down the jetliner. According to an FBI witness interview summary document, a Polish Army veteran saw a commercial aircraft flying, and then saw an object rise sharply, seemingly originating on the water surface. After rising at “seven to ten degrees away from a vertical ninety degree” for ten seconds he saw an explosion “like pulsing yellow and white light”. After realizing he had seen TWA Flight 800 explode and crash, he “opined that this was a medium size missile which would have required three experienced people to operate.”
Civilian witnesses such as retired nurse Phyllis Torney said “a rocket went up in the air and then there was this big explosion” Joseph Delgado, a high school principal at the time who says, “I actually see something behind the tree line more or less like my thumb, go up in the air,” or Mike Wire who saw what looked like “cheap fireworks..go up and out to sea.” Eyewitness Lisa Perry describes seeing a fast moving object that “goes up right to the side of the plane and it was ‘poof,’—it didn’t actually hit the plane. It exploded right next to it.” In addition, NTSB employee and meteorologist Donald Eick, was also an eyewitness. Here’s what he saw: “It was…a reddish object going up….it zigzagged a little. Then several seconds later, we saw an eruption of fire. We never heard anything. We saw a fireball, and at that point we identified what was an aircraft”. Mr. Eick still works for the NTSB and no one there has ever interviewed him.
Politico: Throughout the session, NTSB officials chided reporters for trying to ask about a controversial petition urging the agency to reconsider its investigation into the tragedy, which killed 230 people on a New York-to-Paris flight. The case has been getting newfound media attention driven by a documentary coming out this month that alleges a cover-up…
….NTSB spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said, it would be “very inappropriate” for the bureau to comment specifically on the petition.
COMMENT: Disingenuous. The NTSB briefers took virtually every opportunity to highlight portions of the agency’s final report that rebut allegations brought up in the petition. However, they refused to answer reporters’ critical questions about their rebuttals, saying they could not discuss the petition’s contents. So, de facto, the NTSB’s rebuttals to the petition were not considered a discussion of the petition but the reporters’ critical questions of the NTSB rebuttal were. This is blatant information management.
Politico: “In all sincerity, I am upset about bringing this back up for the sake of people who lost folks in the accident,” said Kolly, director of the NTSB’s Office of Research and Engineering who was the fire and explosives investigator for the TWA 800 crash. “It’s just not a good thing.”
COMMENT (a): Dr. Kolly’s remark begs the question: If the flying public and the people of the United States fund a government agency to serve and protect them and to conduct honest and comprehensive investigations of major accidents, and if a group of investigators who are part of a major investigation under that agency’s aegis discover the investigation they are working on is being undermined and the truth covered up, is Mr. Kolly proposing that “it’s just not a good thing” for them to make every effort to get to the truth of what happened and to convey that truth to the American people who paid and expected them to do just that?
COMMENT (b): Inaccurate. Wolfe’s characterization of Dr. Kolly as “the” fire and explosives investigator” of the TWA 800 crash is inaccurate. Actually, Dr. Merritt Birky, an internationally known expert in the field of fires, was the NTSB’s lead investigator for fire and explosives on the NTSB investigation of TWA 800. He is interviewed in our film, “TWA Flight 800.” Dr. Kolly, who is a mechanical engineer, came to the NTSB in 1998, almost two years after the crash investigation had begun. He did not participate in the on-scene investigation. Prior to coming to the NTSB, Dr. Kolly was a senior research scientist in the fields of “high-speed aerothermodynamics, aero-optics, and measurement diagnostics…”
Politico: Still, the NTSB speakers took virtually every opportunity Tuesday to highlight portions of the agency’s final report that rebut allegations brought up by the petition.
They stressed the length and depth of the investigation, the agency’s most extensive to date. They ran through the news context of the time, showing how even in 1996, the agency and public were aware of terrorism as a potential cause. They held up metal plates showing typical bomb and missile damage, which they said were not reflected in the wreckage. They herded reporters out to a full-scale mock-up of the plane’s fuselage, its body charred and ripped, yet recognizable enough to twist the gut.
COMMENT: Misleading, Irrelevant. The “length and depth” of the investigation is irrelevant and has no bearing on the hard and forensic evidence pertinent to this case. The terrorism news context is also irrelevant because no evidence of a terrorist incident was found, and the petitioners agree with this. The metal plates showing bomb and shoulder-fired missile evidence are also irrelevant because no evidence was found of either. This part of the briefing could be characterized as a “look here, not there” presentation.
Politico: The tension is this: The NTSB found that the probable cause of the accident was a fuel tank explosion sparked by faulty wiring. But the petitioners insist the cause was something more nefarious, such as a bomb or shoulder-launched missile.
COMMENT: Inaccurate. The petitioners do not “insist” the cause was a bomb or a shoulder-launched missile. The available hard evidence shows that both are inconsistent with the metallurgic evidence.
Politico: Kolly said the agency’s four-year investigation ruled that out.
COMMENT: Misleading. The official investigation only looked into and ruled out the possibility of a shoulder-launched missile. They did not look into or rule out proximity fused missiles, which are designed to explode a significant distance away from the aircraft, not on contact with the aircraft like a shoulder-launched missile. Wreckage evidence consistent with a proximity fused missile includes multiple explosives traces inside and outside the aircraft confirmed by Egis explosives detection machines, dozens of holes and fractures created by objects/forces hitting the aircraft from the outside and penetrating inward, radar data indicating debris leaving the immediate vicinity of the aircraft at Mach 4 or supersonic speeds and approximately 100 “spike tooth fractures” found throughout the aircraft.
Politico: “We did conduct an analysis of a [surface-to-air] missile intercept for both a direct intercept and proximity intercept. And we concluded that it was extremely unlikely that the position and the timing were favorable for that type of intercept,” he said.
COMMENT: Misleading. Dr. Kolly’s use of the word “proximity” may give readers the false impression that the NTSB considered a proximity-fused missile intercept, which they did not. Their “proximity” analysis had to do with determining the likelihood of a shoulder-launched missile reaching the point where it self destructs at an optimum distance away from the plane to bring it down, which the petitioners agree would be unlikely. This kind of “word mirroring” can be a very effective tool for creating misimpressions.
Politico: Another portion of the petition alleges that newly uncovered chemical trace evidence suggests explosives. Kolly acknowledged that NTSB investigators discovered chemical residue in three places, and “it’s not definitively clear why.”
COMMENT: A bomb-sniffing canine training exercise was listed as the reason for positive explosives hits in the NTSB final report. In addition, the FBI’s James Kallstrom confirmed under oath to a congressional committee that “it was conclusive that a [bomb-sniffing] dog was on this [sic] plane that blew up.” This scenario has since been discredited (see below). Another explanation for the “multiple hits” of explosive residue (per the FBI’s Bob Heckman who was in charge of deciding what wreckage would be swabbed for explosives), was that the Egis machines the FBI was using to test for explosives yielded “frequent false positives.” But this explanation was dismissed by the FBI’s own supervisory agent at the Washington DC lab (Dr. Fred Whitehurst) where the pieces were sent after testing positive. Dr. Whitehurst says agent Heckman is wrong and that the Egis machine was highly accurate. Mr. David Fine, inventor of the Egis machine concurs with Dr. Whitehurst, saying that the Egis machine rarely, if ever, gives false positives.
Politico: He said that at the time, possible explanations were believed to include residue left over from bomb-sniffing canine training, which he said was less likely than accidental contamination.
COMMENT: The bomb-sniffing canine exercise, initially presented to the press and public as absolute proof, is now characterized as “less likely” because it has been discredited. Here’s why it’s not true: The officer who conducted the exercise did not note the plane number but testified he was on an empty plane. Documents show that the plane that would later become Flight 800 left the gate fully boarded with more than four hundred passengers at 12:35. The officer finished the exercise at 12 noon. TWA regulations require the cabin crew to be on the plane one hour before departure. They would have been on this plane before the dog training exercise even began. So the exercise could not have happened on the plane that would become flight 800. This begs the question: Why didn’t Dr. Kolly inform the reporters about the holes in the canine exercise story at the briefing?
The “frequent false positive” explanation has been discredited by the FBI’s own lab supervisor at the time of the original TWA investigation and the inventor of the Egis explosion detection machine used for on-site testing.
Politico: “Probably a more likely scenario is the fact that [the wreckage] was contaminated after retrieval from the ocean,” Kolly said. FBI and military personnel involved with the investigation could easily have left traces of explosives from their shoes or hands, or residue could have rubbed off from active duty military vessels transporting the material.
COMMENT: Misleading, Inaccurate. Dr. Kolly seems to be engaging in what can be described as a “moving target rationale” tactic to explain the many explosives hits found throughout the wreckage. Because the dog-sniffing and false positive rationales were discredited, he offers yet another one. This time, Dr. Kolly suggests that the explosives were placed throughout the wreckage by FBI and military personnel touching and stepping on the wreckage while the wreckage was being transported on military vessels. What Dr. Kolly does not say is that the military vessels were not active duty warships or military vessels with weaponry. They were salvage ships.
NOTE: According to reporters who attended the briefing, and in a further effort to dismiss a missile as the source of the explosives, the NTSB inaccurately claimed that the explosives were soluble in water and therefore if a missile had deposited explosive residues on the wreckage, those residues would have dissolved in the water. However, according to a report published by Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, PETN “is practically insoluble in water”. And according to the United States Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the “solubility of RDX in water is low to negligible”. PETN and RDX are explosives used in missile warheads and were detected throughout the aircraft wreckage.
This begs the questions: Who came up with the previous false claims and what proof can be offered for the new one? Further, it is spurious to suggest this new explanation without having viewed the wreckage that tested positive for explosives. Dr. Kolly was not brought into the investigation until many months after this wreckage was analyzed, some of which was removed from the investigation by the FBI, and, as documented in our film, was never returned.
Politico: Robert Swaim, NTSB’s systems group chairman for TWA 800, claims that those who take a contrary view of the explosion have “misused” some of his comments related to the agency’s inability to find a definitive root cause.
“In the board meeting, I said, ‘Mr. Chairman, I wish I could come in with the exact wire’” that sparked the explosion, Swaim said.
COMMENT: Inaccurate. Swaim’s claim that his comment was “misused” and that he was at a “board meeting” saying “I wish I could come in with the exact wire,” is false. In “TWA Flight 800” Swaim is shown in a videotape at the NTSB’s final sunshine hearing presenting his findings. Here is the transcript of Swaim’s exchange with NTSB Chairman Hall where Swaim admits to Hall that he did not find the ignition source for the fuel tank explosion the NTSB claims caused the jetliner’s demise:
JIM HALL: After four years of working on this, I assume that you would have liked to have been able to come her today in front of the family members and tell them what the ignition source was.
Bob Swaim: Sir I would just love to be able to walk in here with a molten piece of wire and say, “Here it is,” but no sir I cannot walk up and say, “this is the piece.”
Politico: But he noted that the investigation pinpointed four or five fault indicators all pointing to one wire, related to fuel levels.
“We got it down to a few feet of wire bundle,” he said. “We had four or five, I think it was five, different electrical indications that came right back to that same short, couple few feet of wiring harness. But to have that specific short-circuit in the wiring, no we didn’t have it.”
COMMENT: Misleading. Using a bit of vague technical jargon as a smoke screen, Swaim is trying to convey that he all but found the short circuit, which is false. What does Swaim actually mean by “electrical indications?” If there were four or five, what were they? The fact is that his analysis says that high voltage was shorted into the fuel quantity indication system, which would have damaged the electrical components of that system. However, when reconstructed, the electronics in that system was found to be in perfect working condition. So not only was no evidence found to support Swaim’s theory, this was evidence against it.
Politico: Kolly also dismissed suggestions from the documentary that any evidence was misplaced or lost, answering a flat “no” when a reporter asked.
COMMENT: Inaccurate. Dr. Kolly, who was brought in at the tail end of the on-scene investigation, is in no position to answer this question. In fact, our documentary shows that one piece that disappeared from the investigation was located within a week of the crash, had high-energy damage, and tested positive for PETN, an explosive used in missile warheads. Today, this piece is missing from the area on the TWA reconstruction where it should have been returned and placed. At the briefing, the press was not allowed to film the side of the aircraft where the piece should have been inserted.
Politico: He acknowledged, though, that tension existed between the NTSB and FBI, which was conducting a separate investigation into whether there were any criminal activities related to the crash.
“There was a parallel investigation and there was friction, OK, and we recognize that,” Kolly said. “But it didn’t ultimately harm the investigation,” and since that time the two agencies’ relationship has improved.
COMMENT: Inaccurate. Dr. Kolly’s claim that the friction between the FBI and NTSB “didn’t ultimately harm the investigation” is inaccurate, according to the investigators in “TWA Flight 800” who, unlike Dr. Kolly, were part of the on-scene investigation and were handling the wreckage from the beginning of the investigation. While testifying under whistleblower protection to a senate judiciary committee on May 10, 1999, then-NTSB Senior Accident Investigator Hank Hughes provided a list of some 16 serious problems with evidence handling and gathering, most of which were attributed to the FBI. For example, FBI agent Ricky Hahn was observed trying to flatten a piece of wreckage with a hammer, which is altering evidence. FBI Agent Tom Thurman was observed “digging into passenger seats and placing fragments in pillboxes without any concern for trajectory. (10/28/96 OIG Memorandum of Investigation).” The FBI’s inexperience handling and processing airplane wreckage seriously undermined both the FBI and NTSB investigation. Furthermore, the FBI prohibited any NTSB investigators from interviewing eyewitnesses.
Politico: Dr. Kolly said that on the NTSB’s end, the frustration was that the FBI was pursuing a certain set of information and sometimes asked leading questions.
“They were conducting criminal-type interviews,” he said. He pointed to a portion of the report that recounted some of the typical questions the FBI used, which he said included “How long did the missile fly?” and “What does the terrain around the launch site look like?”
COMMENT: Inaccurate. These were not “typical questions,” and were posed to only a small minority of eyewitnesses. The vast majority of the FBI 302s (eyewitness summaries) contained a summary of the eyewitness’s own account of what he or she saw and no eyewitness responses to leading questions. This begs the question: Has Dr. Kolly actually reviewed all the eyewitness accounts? The “TWA Flight 800” investigative team has done so.
It should be noted here that within two weeks of the crash, and based on these early eyewitness interviews, the FBI concluded that there was a “high probability” that a missile was involved.
In the end, the NTSB did not allow a single eyewitness out of 670 identified by the FBI to testify at either of its public hearings on the crash.