Will authorities revisit TWA 800?

Colby Cosh on conspiracy theories, Snowden Effects and the 1996 explosion of a plane off the coast of New York

(Mark Lennihan, AP photo)


The U.S.’s National Transportation Safety Board announced yesterday that it has received an official petition to reopen its investigation into the July 17, 1996 explosion and crash of TWA’s Flight 800 off the coast of New York. The petition comes from a team called the “Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization,” who say they have important new testimony from retired air crash investigators and who believe that other agencies, including the CIA and the FBI, interfered with the NTSB’s investigation into the crash.

The loss of TWA 800 with 230 souls is still the third worst aviation accident, if it was an accident, in U.S. history. In the years before 9/11, the TWA crash stood out as somehow uniquely grotesque and mysterious. It happened in late evening, within view of the south coast of Long Island and of many other jumbo jets in a busy airlane. It was a major early test of the breaking-news capacity of the internet. Particularly terrible were NTSB reconstructions of the flight path of the plane, which suggested that the Boeing 747 had broken up rather than been blown to smithereens. The largest part of the fuselage, still full of passengers, is thought to have swooped upward as much as 3,000 feet after the explosion before rotating and plunging into the sea.

Many witnesses insisted they had seen a streak of light ascend toward the plane before it exploded, creating an initial suspicion that TWA 800 had been brought down by a missile. That is the theory favoured by the “Independent Researchers.” Although they are very careful about referring to “an external explosion” as their pet alternative to the official story—which is that an electrical short circuit blew up a fuel tank—it is clear enough that they are thinking “missile”. And it is clear enough that they suspect the investigation was obfuscated at the behest of powerful forces in the government, either because terrorists had succeeded in embarrassing its intelligence-gathering or because the explosion was actually the result of a military accident. Much is made of the radar signature of a mysterious craft that appeared on the surface of the water briefly at around the time of the disaster.

It makes for a wonderful case study in the way conspiracy theories arise. The FBI was permitted to horn in on the NTSB investigation precisely because, and only because, there were so many witnesses offering contradictory accounts of the explosion. That, in turn, allows the Independent Researchers to hang upon the FBI every error, imperfection, and bit of official superciliousness perpetrated in the course of the investigation. The bureaucracy’s sincere desire to rule out a crime if no crime took place becomes, in the eyes of skeptics, circumstantial evidence of a crime concealed.

One must say in defence of the TWA Truthers that the outcome of the NTSB’s investigation was unusually unsatisfying. The official theory of the accident is that a 747, still the human species’ chief means of covering intercontinental distances quickly, blew up more or less spontaneously and at random. The investigators are not sure how this happened, and certainly failed to prove to their typical standard that it did happen. “A short circuit ignited a fuel tank” sounds suspiciously like what you come up with when less palatable explanations are suppressed. And there really were several people who insisted that the order of events they witnessed was “ascending streak of light, then explosion.” Anyone who was watching CNN on the evening of the crash heard some.

The Independent Researchers have tried their best to compromise everything news viewers think they know about TWA 800 (including that unforgettable reconstruction of the airframe’s last moments). It would be heartbreaking if the NTSB proved to be as subversible by military and police authority as other instruments of U.S. government, but that is just because there is little or nothing in its history to suggest that such a thing is possible. I suppose all of us have now had to develop a private taxonomy of conspiracy theories, a spectrum of reference ranging from “incredible conspiracies unquestionably proven to have taken place” (the World War II Ultra Secret) to “insane crapola that would not convince a conscientious child” (pretty well anything 9/11-related). This one sits a level, maybe even two, above the crapola drawer. I think the appropriate label is “I will not exactly be knocked on my derrière if something eventually comes of this.”

The NTSB’s respectful response to the Independent Researcher petition raises the question of whether there might exist a “Snowden Effect” resulting from the revelations recently made by a certain four-eyed former tech contractor for the National Security Agency. The TWA 800 conspiracists/countertheorists have been hard at work almost since the evening of the accident/incident. They have a filmed documentary in the works—which is, incidentally, a sizable point against them in my personal ledger: I observe an increasingly unshakeable rule of thumb that all documentaries are, if not lies, then practically indistinguishable from lies. (If you wish to disagree, I ask only that you send me a five-minute video clip of you doing or saying absolutely anything, and allow me to apply the composition, colour and film-grain effects, editing, and music of my choice.) Obviously they are not taking advantage, per se, of the climate of hostility and paranoia created by Edward Snowden’s account of the American security state. They were already hostile and paranoid.

But Snowden’s globally televised dissident activity may serve to create a more receptive audience for conspiracy theories about the U.S.A. It might, on the other hand, make American government agencies more aware of their public image and more eager to at least appear somewhat libertarian and sensible, a bit less like servants of bloodthirsty alien lizard-beings. And, then again, there’s a third possibility: Snowden’s audacity might shame other officials trying to retire with secrets in their bosom into stepping forward sooner. I think I have, unfortunately, listed these conceivable Snowden Effects in the order of their real likelihood.

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