Television review

Documentary explores conspiracy theories on the fate of TWA Flight 800

It was the first great conspiracy theory of the Internet age: the belief that a Paris-bound airliner that exploded and burned just after takeoff from JFK International in July 1996, killing all 250 aboard, was the victim of a missile rather than an electrical malfunction, as a government investigation concluded. And now it’s back in an interesting and serious-minded documentary film, TWA Flight 800, airing Wednesday on Epix.

Fueled partly by genuine evidence — particularly the scores of witnesses on the ground who reported seeing a vapor trail rise to collide with the airliner — and partly by the ragged paranoia that lurks just beneath so much U.S. political discourse, the suspicion that TWA 800 was attacked surged when former ABC newsman Pierre Salinger announced he had evidence the plane had been struck by a U.S. Navy missile. Salinger’s claim turned out to be based on demonstrably phony documents circulating on the Internet, and interest subsided.

But the conspiracy theory never really died. And TWA Flight 800 will bring it back with a vengeance. Its critiques of the official report come not from the tinfoil-hat crowd but several members of the original government team that probed the crash, including former investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Air Line Pilot Association and TWA itself.

Some of what they consider suspicious is doubtless just the investigative equivalent of the fog of war, generated by turf battles between federal agencies grabbing for their own piece of the action. Arrogance and secretiveness are a way of life at the FBI, not necessarily part of a coverup.

And much of the technical data presented in TWA Flight 800 — stuff like the asymmetrical pattern of explosive debris — is nearly impossible to evaluate for anybody without a degree in physics or aeronautics.

But other parts, like the presence of high-explosive residue in the wreckage and those still-unexplained eyewitness accounts of vapor trails rising from the ground, are less abstract and more troubling. The government’s supposed explanations for them (which are carefully and fairly explained in the documentary) are piteously unconvincing.

Yet the case for conspiracy has giant holes of its own. The eyewitness accounts of a vapor trail, for instance, place it at so many different locations that there would have had to have been at least three separate missiles fired at TWA 800. That rules out one of the most popular conspiracy theories, that the airliner was the victim of a military test-firing gone awry. The chances that the Pentagon was conducting tests at three sites simultaneously are just about nil. And what terrorist group, in 1996, would have had the capacity to obtain three anti-aircraft missiles, smuggle them into the New York metropolitan area and fire them all without detection?

Even if you aren’t convinced by TWA Flight 800, though, it’s worth watching: the creepy video of the hangar where investigators reconstructed the airliner, piece by piece, with wreckage plucked from the sea. The peeks into the seaside morgue in which mutilated corpses were stacked. The investigators’ descriptions of the acrid aroma of death that spread across the site. And, most horrifying of all, the recollection of a time when we could still be shocked by terrorism, that we could ever have believed that it couldn’t happen here.

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