TWA Flight 800
crash off Long Island, NY
July 17, 1996

The National Transportation Safety Board, NTSB, concluded that the crash of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet off the coast of Long Island in 1996 which killed all 230 people on board was a terrible accident, not a conspiracy by terrorist as originally feared.

Some theorists also speculated that a military or terrorist missile, or a terrorist bomb, had caused the plane to breakup at 13,500 feet over the Atlantic Ocean. The NTSB's investigation, however, found no evidence to support any of those plots. Investigators began debunking original sabotage theories a few months after the tragedy.

Bernard Loeb, director of aviation safety for the safety board, said, "The bottom line is that our investigation confirms that the fuel-air vapor in the center wing tank was flammable at the time of the accident." He added an explosion in that center tank -- a space roughly the size of a two car garage -- was "more than capable of generating the pressure" needed to break up the enormous aircraft.

NTSB chairman, Jim Hall, said the crash "graphically demonstrated that, even in one of the safest transportation systems in the world, things can go horribly wrong." He added, "It should stand as a reminder to us all of the need for diligence and aggressive action in identifying and eliminating potential safety problems."

Since the crash, a number of measures to reduce the chance of electrical shorts have been put into effect, according to officials. The NTSB, issuing recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), hopes to push through still more changes, possibly including nonflammable (inert) gas into partly full tanks and eliminating any possible source of sparks.

The FBI worked with the safety board for more than a year before concluding in November 1997 there was no evidence of a criminal act. The remains of all 230 victims were recovered, as was more than 95 percent of the aircraft. Examination of the bodies and of the aircraft parts showed no telltale signs of a bomb or missile.

An investigator of the NTSB's materials laboratory explained the explosion originated in the 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 section. From there cracks rapidly moved forward, opening a hole in the bottom of the nose section. Without that support, the nose bent down and came off the plane, falling to the water. Relieved of the weight, the rear of the plane first climbed, then rolled and plunged into the ocean, breaking up as it fell.

Some witnesses reported seeing a streak of light rising up through the sky shortly before 9 p.m. the night of the crash, prompting some people to wonder if a missile had been shot toward the 747. Investigators believe that the rising streak of light may have been the tail section, still climbing, after the initial explosion caused the nose section to break away.

SOURCE: National Transportation Safety Board
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