- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 23, 2000

Despite all the fears and conspiracy theories, the conclusion is "inescapable" that an explosion of vapors in a fuel tank is what brought down TWA Flight 800 four years ago at a loss of 230 lives, a top federal investigator concluded yesterday.
Investigators "cannot be certain" what ignited the blast, but the most likely cause was an electrical short in wiring inside the tank, said Bernard S. Loeb, aviation safety director of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The physical evidence, he said, "leads to the inescapable conclusion" that the plane was brought down by a fuel-air explosion inside the center wing tank.
As the meeting wore on, Robert Swaim of the aviation engineering section expressed the frustration of investigators seeking the source of ignition. "I would love to walk in here with a molten piece of wire and say, 'Here it is,"' he said.
Mr. Loeb said there was no evidence that metal fatigue, corrosion, recent repairs of the plane, a bomb or a missile was involved in the disaster off the coast of New York's Long Island.
John Seaman of Albany, N. Y., who lost his 19-year-old niece Michelle Becker of St. Petersburg, Fla., was at the hearing, along with more than 75 relatives of victims.
"We waited four years for the truth," said Mr. Seaman. "We wanted an open, honest and scientific answer. I think that is what we got."
"The crash of Flight 800 graphically demonstrates that, even in one of the safest transportation systems in the world, things can go horribly wrong," said NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, opening the two-day meeting to study investigators' reports on the crash and its cause.
At the session, teams of investigators set forth their findings in detail, an effort to show that the agency has made every possible effort to determine what happened and how it can be prevented in the future.
Indeed, the center fuel tank came under suspicion early and the agency has made several recommendations for improvements.
The Federal Aviation Administration, in turn, has issued 37 directives to airlines and aircraft makers for improvements and is working on other possible changes including introducing nonflammable gas into partly full tanks and eliminating any possible source of sparks.
The NTSB findings, however well documented, are unlikely to be accepted by dissenters with theories ranging from bombs to a Navy missile to air turbulence.
Some contend the government is trying to cover up the real cause, and one group, calling itself the TWA 800 Eyewitness Alliance, ran a full-page ad in yesterday's Washington Times insisting missiles brought the plane down.
Those theories drew a rebuke from Mr. Hall, who said the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and his investigators all failed to find evidence of a bomb or missile blast.
"It is unfortunate that a small number of people, pursuing their own agendas, have persisted in making unfounded charges of government coverup in this investigation," Mr. Hall said.
Bomb and missile blasts leave distinct patterns, Mr. Loeb explained.
"High-energy explosions leave distinctive damage signatures such as severe pitting, cratering, hot gas washing, and petaling. No such damage was found on any portion of the recovered airplane structure," he said.
Tiny traces of explosive discovered in the cabin were probably left over from exercises testing bomb-sniffing dogs conducted on the plane days before, investigators said.
"The bottom line is that our investigation confirmed that the fuel-air vapor in the center wing tank was flammable at the time of the accident, and that a fuel-air explosion with Jet A fuel was more than capable of generating the pressure needed to break apart the center wing tank and destroy the airplane," Mr. Loeb said.
The Boeing 747 crashed on July 17, 1996, shortly after taking off from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York en route to Paris.
Investigator James Wildey of the NTSB's materials laboratory explained that the explosion originated in the huge fuel tank located where the wing spars pass through the plane's center. The tank was partly empty and air conditioners located beneath the tank had given off heat, warming the fuel during a long wait for takeoff.
The initial blast shoved the front wall of the fuel tank against the forward wing spar, knocking it down onto the bottom of the nose. From there, Mr. Wildey said, cracks rapidly moved forward, opening a hole in the bottom of the nose.
Without that support, the nose bent down and came off the plane, falling to the water, he explained. Relieved of that weight, the rear of the plane first climbed, then rolled and plunged into the ocean, breaking up as it fell.
Mr. Wildey said his investigation found minor corrosion and a few fatigue cracks in the 25-year-old plane but these were minor and played no part in the crash. He said there was no evidence that recent repairs to the plane structure were involved.

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