The Brancatelli File

joe TWA 800:


July 16, 1998 -- Tomorrow is the second anniversary of TWA Flight 800 and we are no closer to answers than we were on the night that the Boeing 747 went down in flames.

The human tragedy remains palpable. You will read stories in the coming days about how the families still struggle to cope with their loss. And for those of us who fly all the time, the image of TWA 800 never leaves our mind. We know that every flight we take could end like TWA 800.

But we mustn't allow our emotions to cloud our judgment. Every flight we take also reminds us of what a sham the investigation of TWA 800 has been.

You can no longer obtain an advance boarding pass because of security measures imposed after TWA 800. Whenever you step up to a ticket counter, you are asked a series of inane questions because of the heightened security imposed after TWA 800. Whenever you step through an airport magnetometer, the alarm bell rings and you're treated like a security risk because there is some loose change in your pocket. Why? Because airports increased the sensitivity of their machines after TWA 800.

Yet all of the government agencies involved in the investigation insist TWA 800 was not a matter of terrorism. After hanging around the scene for more than a year and polluting traditional investigative procedures, the FBI claims there was no criminal activity surrounding TWA 800. The National Transportation Safety Board, meekly accepting FBI strictures, parrots the same line. No bomb, no act of terrorism, contributed to the TWA 800 tragedy.

So why are we treated like potential criminals at the airport? Why can't we have advance boarding passes? Why must we show photo identification? Why are we asked who packed our luggage and if our bags have always been in our possession? If there was no criminal activity involved in TWA 800, why have these ham-fisted tactics remained in effect?

But there's more, much more.

Almost alone among governmental and quasi-governmental agencies, the NTSB had been above reproach before TWA 800. It investigated accidents without fear or favor. It made findings without worrying about what Boeing thought, the airlines wanted or the Federal Aviation Administration deemed feasible. Its agenda was our safety. Period.

But not in the case of TWA 800. When it held its public hearings, the NTSB allowed the process to be fatally skewed. It squashed crucial evidence and didn't question eyewitnesses at the behest of the FBI. It didn't even keep this outrage a secret. The NTSB's lead investigator, Robert Francis, confirmed the cover-up in an extraordinary letter he wrote to James Kallstrom, his FBI counterpart.

I like to think Francis wrote the letter and somehow got it into the hands of the public to warn us that the traditionally upright NTSB had been twisted and corrupted. But regardless of motive, we know the NTSB hearings were useless because the people who convened them have told us they ignored evidence and witnesses.

The NTSB report on its hearings has yet to be issued, but we already know the public line: TWA 800 was most likely downed by an explosion caused by sparks that ignited fuel or fumes in the 747's center fuel tank.

Does that explanation pass the laugh test? I don't know. I'm a frequent flyer, not an engineer. But I do have a simple question: If such a catastrophic failure is possible, why weren't all 747s immediately grounded for inspection and repairs? Not one 747 in the worldwide fleet was ever taken out of routine service.

At the tiniest suggestion of a flaw, the government grounded hundreds of 737s in recent months for immediate inspection and repair. In the case of TWA 800, however, we are asked to believe that a catastrophic failure caused a mid-air explosion, yet no other 747 need be grounded.

I don't know what caused TWA Flight 800 to plunge into the ocean two years ago. I don't know why it never got to Paris. And I am not a fool: I know that, sometimes, a tragedy can't be explained even with our best technology and best intentions.

But I also know this: Something is wrong with the investigation of TWA 800. Two years on, we're left with exactly the same questions we had on the night of the tragedy.

Was it a bomb? A missile fired by a military jet? A catastrophic failure that threatens the future of the 747, whose basic design is already a generation old?

Every time I see a grieving family member on television, I want honest answers. Any time the keys in my pocket set off an airport magnetometer, I want to know why TWA 800 went down. Whenever I see a poor schlep get his luggage tossed because he gave the wrong answer to a stupid question, I want clarity.

It's two years now. Our investigative units have been compromised. Hundreds of our fellow travelers are dead. The rest of us are treated like suspects.

Yet all we have to show for TWA 800 are lies, theories and unanswered questions.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.