TWA Flight 800: 25 years later


(FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) – Air disasters are poignant periods in history scarred by tragedy and sometimes a mystery. But in every case, there is something to learn from the seconds leading up to disaster. TWA 800, one of the most prolific air disasters in history, is hitting headlines again for the lives the wreckage saved.

The thousands of parts reassembled by the NTSB have been used as a training device since the wreckage was released by federal investigators.

NTSB Chief Technical Advisor Frank Hilldrup told Fox 46 their investigation started with collecting debris from different areas of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island.

“As the airplane was flying along and the explosion occurred… the first pieces in the debris field… some of those were from the center wing tank area.”

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“There was a secondary fire and explosion as the airplane was pitching over and coming down,” said Hilldrup. The investigator was one of the first on the scene in New York in July of 1996. His job was to catalog and analyze wreckage. Much of what remains of the Boeing 747 is in a storage facility near Dulles Airport at the NTSB Training Headquarters. Hilldrup says the remaining parts are still vital to training new investigators.

“Most of those were from the center wing tank or the surrounding structure. So that was our focus… at some point when we started to recover things — they went to this area.”

The worst mid-air disaster in decades stunned our nation during a very tense time in 1996. The timing of the disaster led many to wonder if something More illicit than a technical malfunction was to blame for the in-flight breakup.

“That lends itself to the possibility of a criminal act or intentional act of some kind. And… a couple of weeks into the investigation we had a bombing at the Atlanta Olympics as well,” said Hilldrup.

NTSB Managing Director Sharon Bryson is still in awe when she sees the reconstruction.

“It’s a chilling reminder of what happens when things don’t go right in the transportation industry.”

Then-president Clinton made many statements to the nation in the course of the investigation

“We will determine what happened but for now I want to caution again the American people against jumping to any conclusions.”

A jet fuel flashover sparked by an apparent short circuit in the fuel system was to blame for the explosion according to the NTSB. Prior to the final report that was released in August 2000, the FBI released an animation produced by the CIA to control the storyline of what brought down flight 800. A theory backed up by hundreds of witnesses says a missile or bomb brought down the airliner.

Despite the NTSB closing out their investigation, the board decided flight 800’s wreckage and case study was invaluable as a training device. A tool to further develop practices in dealing with the human factor of future crashes.

Director Bryson remembers her first assignment with the NTSB when she was brought on board.

“Family members who were already in a terrible position… things were already feeling out of control for them when they received the call. I believe the airline was in a tough position to try and provide services to the families of those that were killed.”

Two families from the Carolinas dealt with that sorrow. 20-year-old Matthew Alexander, a senior at  Wake Forest University was on the way to Paris for a study abroad program. Alexander was an ROTC Staff Sergeant on a Scholarship.

Also on board, off-duty TWA pilot Rick Verhaeghe from Goldsboro. Verhaeghe was on the way to Paris to work for a different flight back to the US. A faithful husband remembered for his community involvement.

For Bryson and Hilldrup — they say the gravity of this disaster shaped their careers and made clear that the grief of all TWA 800 families wouldn’t be in vain. Many programs within the airlines and federal government were developed because of this crash.

“The disaster assistance program — I think everyone is clear that this is what caused then-President Clinton to move forward with the executive order and Congress to pass the legislation. That has changed the face of victim assistance in many places.”

In July of 2008, the FAA issued a directive requiring fuel tank inerting technology to reduce the risk of center fuel tank fires. That required nearly 3,000 commercial aircraft operated by US-based airlines to undergo retrofit costing over 400 million dollars.

A few years later in 2013, “The TWA Project” filed a petition to the NTSB for the investigation to be re-opened. The group claims a “detonation or high-velocity explosion” was behind the disaster. The NTSB denied the group’s petition after determining they didn’t present any evidence that “showed the original findings were incorrect”. The reconstruction at NTSB training headquarters is supposed to be digitally cataloged for use as a teaching tool in future investigator trainee classes. The physical wreckage will go through a certified destruction process.


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