New probe sought in 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800

Ex-investigators dispute NTSB findings in case

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MINEOLA, N.Y. -- Former investigators are pushing to reopen the probe into the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, saying new evidence points to the often-discounted theory that a missile strike may have downed the jumbo jet.

The New York City-to-Paris flight crashed July 17, 1996, just minutes after the jetliner took off from Kennedy International Airport, killing all 230 people aboard, including several people from Western Pennsylvania.

The effort to reopen the probe is being made in tandem with the release next month of a documentary that features the testimony of former investigators who raise doubts about the National Transportation Safety Board's conclusion that the crash was caused by a center fuel tank explosion, probably arising from a spark because of a wiring short-circuit.

"We don't know who fired the missile," said Jim Speer, an accident investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association, one of those seeking a review of the probe. "But we have a lot more confidence that it was a missile."

In a petition filed Wednesday seeking to reopen the probe, the former investigators say they have "reviewed the FAA radar evidence along with new evidence not available to the NTSB during the official investigation and contend that the NTSB's probable-cause determination is erroneous and should be reconsidered and modified accordingly."

Those calling for a review of the investigation include former NTSB accident investigator Hank Hughes and Bob Young, a former senior accident investigator for the now-defunct TWA. Tom Stalcup, a physicist and co-founder of a group called Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization, also questions the board's original findings and is featured prominently in the documentary, slated to air July 17, the crash's 17th anniversary.

Among the victims were Pittsburgh architect Jill Watson, 32, and Shadyside artist Judy Penzer, 49. Ms. Watson and Ms. Penzer were traveling together on vacation to Paris.

Also on board were French physicist Jean Zara, who was returning to his home after visiting his wife's family in Shaler; David Babb, 13, of Volant, Lawrence County; and David's aunt and uncle from Upper St. Clair, Clara Ersoz, 59, and Namik Ersoz, 64.

For Janice Watson, mother of Jill Watson, the 1996 crash and the investigation that followed don't feel like distant memories. "Seventeen years -- it sounds so long," she said. "But it doesn't seem long. I think of [Jill] every day."

Even if the investigation reopens, Mrs. Watson, who now lives in Florida, said the outcome won't change the pain that goes along with memories of her daughter's death. "I just don't know [what caused the crash]," she said. "But what I do know is that it won't make any difference to me, because we've lost Jill, and we won't get her back."

For architect Art Lubetz, who was Jill Watson's partner in business and lived with her in Pittsburgh, a new investigation also won't change the loneliness he felt after she died. He remembered the way their colleagues would suddenly avoid his glance after her death. The weeks and months after TWA Flight 800 went down off Long Island were not memories he wanted to relive, saying he was "not thrilled" to hear about the crash again.

Mr. Lubetz questioned whether any good would come from reopening the investigation. "What's it going to prove? ... I would like whatever the truth is to be the truth, but I believe that the way things are believed to have happened are probably accurate already," he said.

The NTSB issued a statement Wednesday morning saying it was aware of the upcoming documentary.

"All petitions for reconsideration are thoroughly reviewed, and a determination is usually made within about 60 days," spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said. "While the NTSB rarely re-investigates issues that have already been examined, our investigations are never closed, and we can review any new information not previously considered by the board."

She noted that the TWA Flight 800 investigation lasted four years. "Investigators took great care reviewing, documenting and analyzing facts and data and held a five-day hearing to gather additional facts before determining the probable cause of the accident during a two-day board meeting."

Robert Francis, the NTSB's former vice chairman who headed the investigation, declined to comment.

The former investigators calling for another probe say fresh evidence that a missile may have taken down the jet includes analysis of radar of the jetliner.

Speculation of a missile strike began almost immediately after the crash. Theories that an errant missile may have been fired from a U.S. military vessel were widely refuted, but conjecture about a shoulder-fired missile launched by terrorists in a small boat has never completely gone away. The petitioners contend that the testimony of more than 200 witnesses who reported seeing streaks of light headed toward the plane should be reconsidered.

The NTSB said after the first investigation that it found no evidence of a missile strike. It explained that what witnesses likely saw was the jetliner pitching upward in the first few moments after the explosion. But some witnesses still maintain that the streak of light they saw emanated from the waterline and zoomed upward toward the plane.

John Seaman, longtime leader of an organization of TWA 800 victims' families, noted that there have been several attempts over the years to reopen the investigation.

"Unless something was to develop that would be very clear and compelling, then a lot of these interested parties are not really helpful," said Mr. Seaman, whose niece died on the flight. He spoke from upstate New York in a phone interview Tuesday, ahead of the petition's formal filing. "They reopen wounds," he said of the petitioners. "Personally, I can't keep going over it again and again. I think most families feel that way."

The documentary airs on the EPIX premium television channel. An EPIX spokeswoman declined to say how much the filmmakers were paid for the documentary.


Post-Gazette staff writer Megan Doyle contributed.


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