Controversy Dogs TWA 800 On 12th Anniversary - InformationWeek

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7/17/2008
12:00 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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Controversy Dogs TWA 800 On 12th Anniversary

It was 12 years ago tonight that a 747 loaded with 230 people took off from JFK in New York, gently tilted itself over the Atlantic toward Paris, and exploded. Amid the many memorials flooding the Web today, almost none are focusing on the still-lingering controversy over the official cause of the disaster.

It was 12 years ago tonight that a 747 loaded with 230 people took off from JFK in New York, gently tilted itself over the Atlantic toward Paris, and exploded. Amid the many memorials flooding the Web today, almost none are focusing on the still-lingering controversy over the official cause of the disaster.The official explanation for the fireball which consumed TWA 800 is that vapors in its central wing fuel tank were ignited by a spark, probably routed via old, insulation-challenged wiring. The fuel/air mix in the tank had been made more volatile by the fact that the plane had sitting on the runway in the hot sun for hours prior to takeoff.

OK, so now you're wondering whether I'm some conspiracy theorist who thinks the jumbo jet was shot out of the sky by a shoulder-launched terrorist missile, or, more nefariously, downed by accidental friendly fire from a U.S. Navy training exercise. (There's also a well-known article from The New York Review of Books, which argues electromagnetic interference caused the explosion.)

No, I'm not.

My beef with the TWA 800 investigation is fairly unique. It has nothing to do with the conclusion, but rather with the apparent lack of transparency during and after the investigation. The thing is, if you want to convince people -- particularly folks with a scientific background, like engineers and computer scientists -- of the veracity of an hypothesis, you're supposed to do it on the power of your facts. Not by ramming it down people's throats.

Start with the numerous witnesses who saw a rising fireball in the sky. Many weren't interviewed, and those who persisted in their claim that they saw an object rising up toward the plane were essentially dismissed as being nuts. Attempting to put these widespread anecdotal reports to rest, the CIA put together a video simulation (scroll down, here) showing TWA 800 continuing to rise with its nose section blown off.

The thing that really got to me, though, were the hearings, televised on C-SPAN, during which Boeing engineers presented their findings about the fuel tank explosion. The hearings had the feel of a set piece, where the conclusions were gonna be what they were gonna be.

Again, I'm not saying the fuel-vapor-ignition wasn't the cause of the TWA 800 explosion. I'm just saying I would like to have had deeper exposure to the alternate paths pursued -- not by the kooks -- but by the investigators themselves. Indeed, I have no doubt that the FBI and the FAA both looked into the terrorist theories before dismissing them. It's safe to assume that political considerations -- as in, don't panic the public -- are why we didn't get a good look at the reasons they discarded that stuff.

One other point: if a fuel-tank explosion was the cause, isn't it negligence that the FAA is only now, on the 12th anniversary of the disaster, ordering the airlines to install a fire-prevention system which pumps nitrogen into the tanks? By the way, the FAA order gives the airlines up to eight years to implement the fix.

It's no wonder that many families of the victims of TWA 800 have found little solace in all the official machinations.

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