It wasn’t a missile, government officials said at the time. Just a tragic accident. A mechanical failure.
It was a central fuel tank explosion that sent TWA Flight 800 plummeting into the Atlantic Ocean in a 1996 crash that remains one of the country’s most devastating airline accidents.
Fred Meyer, an eyewitness, never believed it.
“I’m a combat vet, I know what missiles look like,” he said in an interview. “And I know what I saw.”
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Nearly 17 years after the Boeing 747 crashed 10 miles off of New York’s Long Island, killing all 230 passengers and crew, Meyer’s account – and dozens of others that challenged the government’s official finding – is getting a second look.
Six officials, all of whom participated in the original accident investigation, announced Wednesday morning that they have filed a petition demanding that the government reopen the investigation. Breaking a 17-year silence, the six, including former National Transportation Safety Board senior investigator Hank Hughes and former TWA accident investigator Bob Young, alleged that they were forced to cover up original findings and were subjected to manipulation by the FBI during the course of the investigation.
“I (was) an investigator for over 42 years at time of retirement. TWA 800 was a one-of-a-kind event,” Hughes said during a phone briefing for the news media Wednesday afternoon. “There was no instance in my entire career that was like it, from the standpoint of the manipulation of the investigation, lack of coordination, and for that matter, the willful denial of information.”
FBI officials said Wednesday that they stand by their previous findings.
The former investigators’ allegations have been met with harsh criticism from fellow former NTSB officials, who stand by the official findings.
“I think it’s outrageous. And they’re wrong,” Peter Goelz, managing director for the NTSB from 1996 to 2000, who was on-scene from the day of the crash, said in an interview. “What these guys do is cherry-pick information. . . . It’s just baloney.”
“All (they) do is whine about the FBI . . . what else is new,” Goelz said. “They’re bullies, but it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean anyone was covering anything up.”
In a feature-length documentary set to air July 17 on the Epix premium TV channel, Hughes, Young and several other now-retired investigators bring their long-guarded conclusion to light: The TWA 800 crash was caused by an outside explosion, not an internal one.
Saying they were forbidden from voicing their analysis during the official investigation, they now claim that the conclusion that a central fuel tank explosion was the cause was unsupported.
“We didn’t find any part of the airplane that indicated a mechanical failure,” Young said in the documentary.
Although they refused to speculate, the investigators agreed that their findings were consistent with a missile detonating near the plane’s left wing. Their revelations have stirred questions from critics and supporters alike.
“We categorically reject the language of ‘conspiracy,’” they said in the phone briefing. “However, we will say that there was a cover-up.”
The former investigators refused to speak on the possible motivations for a cover-up. Although they said their findings conclusively led to an external explosion, they would not explicitly point toward a missile. When asked during Wednesday’s phone briefing who could have fired a missile or for possible reasons the plane could have been shot down, the line often remained silent. “I don’t know why. I’m just going to say that what they portrayed as the cause of an accident is just not true,” Young told reporters.
Their list of alleged mishandlings includes evidence tampering, disappearing parts and a shield of secrecy separating the FBI from the rest of the investigators.
They also alleged that tapes were edited, debris location tags were changed and evidence vanished. They claim that TWA investigators were prevented from seeing evidence until it went through the FBI. In some cases, the former investigators said they were not permitted to see the evidence all together. Complaints, they said, fell on deaf ears.
In one instance, Hughes alleged, FBI agents were caught tampering with evidence.
“On one occasion, an agent from California was brought in,” he said. “I found him in the main hanger with a hammer pounding on some of the wreckage, trying to flatten it out.”
In addition, the former investigators charge that the FBI buried hundreds of eyewitness accounts like Fred Meyer’s, which report seeing a missile or streak of light before the plane plunged toward the ocean. FBI agents allegedly told these witnesses that they “didn’t see anything,” and despite their willingness to testify, none of the more than 600 eyewitnesses were ever permitted to appear at any of the official NTSB hearings.
Along with eyewitnesses and family members, investigators filed a petition to the NTSB on Wednesday morning demanding that the investigation be reopened and all evidence taken into account. They did not know when they could expect a response. Until then, the wreckage of TWA 800, sitting in a Virginia warehouse, goes undisturbed.
But the former investigators stand by their conclusions.
“At this point, based on what we found,” Young said, “my years of experience, the evaluation that we’ve all done individually and cooperatively . . . there’s no question.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong first name for former NTSB managing director Peter Goelz.