MINEOLA, New York (AP) — Former U.S. investigators want to reopen the probe into the 1996 crash of a Paris-bound jet off the coast of New York City, saying new evidence points to the often-discounted theory that a missile strike may have downed the flight.
TWA Flight 800 crashed July 17, 1996, just minutes after the jetliner took off, killing all 230 people aboard. The effort to reopen the investigation is being made in tandem with next month's release 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 caused by a spark from a short-circuit in the wiring.
"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 new review of the probe. "But we have a lot more confidence that it was a missile."
In a petition asking the NTSB to reopen the probe, they say they reviewed the Federal Aviation Administration radar evidence along with new evidence that was not available to the safety board during the official investigation.
The former investigators 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 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.
The petition filed with the NTSB to reopen the probe claims "new analyses of the FAA radar evidence demonstrate that the explosion that caused the crash did not result from a low-velocity fuel-air explosion as the NTSB has determined. Rather, it was caused by a detonation or high-velocity explosion."
The NTSB issued a statement Wednesday saying it is aware of the documentary. "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," spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said.
She noted the TWA Flight 800 investigation lasted four years. Robert Francis, the former vice chairman of the NTSB who headed the investigation, declined to comment. Former FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom, who headed the criminal probe after the crash, denied claims of a cover-up by the government, saying investigators "took very seriously the idea that a missile could have shot down the plane."
Speaking on CNN," Kallstrom said they "did an exhaustive investigation," recovering 97 percent of the airplane from the Atlantic Ocean. "We used all the assets of the United States, all the missile experts in the military," he said. "So I'm very confident that we had enough of that airplane to make the judgment that no criminal intervention, to our knowledge, our knowledge at the time, our knowledge in 1996, wherever that science was, that did not bring down the aircraft."
John Seaman, the longtime leader of an organization of TWA 800 victims' families, noted 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 Seaman, whose niece died on the flight.
"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."
Associated Press writer Frank Eltman contributed.