Ten Years Later, Government Safety Experts Warn More Explosions, Loss of Life ′Virtually Certain′
Twelve minutes into a July 17, 1996, Paris-bound flight from New York′s JFK International Airport with 230 passengers on board, TWA Flight 800 exploded and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. There were no survivors. Ten years later, CNN Presents will air a two-hour documentary on the disaster and reveal why government officials say similar catastrophes are "virtually certain to occur."
CNN PRESENTS: NO SURVIVORS - WHY TWA 800 COULD HAPPEN AGAIN will premiere on Saturday, July 15, at 7 p.m., with a replay at 10 p.m. The documentary will re-air on Sunday, July 16, at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. All times Eastern. CNN.com will launch a multimedia in-depth report at www.CNN.com/twa800 on Wednesday, July 5, as well as an audio podcast with CNN correspondent David Mattingly at www.cnn.com/podcasting.
CNN′s realistic animation of the doomed flight will show how an explosion in the Boeing 747′s center fuel tank caused the plane to break apart at 13,000 feet. While the cockpit and first-class section began to fall, the remainder of the fuselage continued to climb through the summer sky for approximately 30 seconds before plummeting into the ocean off the coast of Long Island.
Some eyewitnesses reported seeing what they thought was a missile. Jim Kallstrom, head of the FBI′s New York office, who lost a friend in the disaster - the wife of an FBI colleague - tells CNN: "I would have bet my rather meager government paycheck that it was an act of terrorism."
Federal officials were already on high alert. In 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, destroyed by a bomb hidden by Libyan terrorists in the airliner′s baggage compartment. Terrorist Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center, was on trial in Manhattan for a separate plot to blow up U.S. jetliners. And, just weeks before the TWA 800 tragedy, a truck bomb killed 19 American servicemen at the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia.
As White House officials monitored the TWA 800 investigation, they were acutely interested in possible links to Mideast terrorism. "We especially wanted to look for an Iranian connection," former National Security Advisor Tony Lake tells Mattingly for No Survivors.
After an exhaustive investigation into the cause of the TWA explosion, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the probable cause was not terrorism, but an electrical short circuit that sparked an explosion in the vapor-filled center fuel tank. The NTSB warned that other aging planes were similarly vulnerable and, in fact, some safety experts had warned about the risk of fuel tank explosions as far back as the 1960s.
In a statement to CNN, Boeing says it has "implemented numerous fuel system improvements" and continues "to enhance an already safe fleet."
CNN Presents also shows the effects of the 10-year-old disaster on the victims′ families, who gather each year on a Long Island beach to mark the anniversary. From the beginning, the families bonded over their shared horror and eventual realization that the accident might have been prevented. For a few, their loss is compounded by the suspicion that the government has not revealed all it knows about the events of that terrible night.
Theories of U.S. Navy missiles fired in error and elaborate government cover-ups still exist. Internet conspiracy rumors snared even the late Pierre Salinger, a former Kennedy White House press secretary who claimed to have secret documents proving that the jetliner was hit by a U.S. Navy missile. Actually, the documents were the musings of a former airline pilot and had been circulating on the Internet for months.
"We knew the story of TWA 800 would be a compelling documentary," said Mark Nelson, vice president and senior executive producer of CNN Productions. "Right now, the airlines are trying to stop the Federal Aviation Administration from requiring additional safety equipment. The FAA says it′s needed to prevent future fuel tank explosions. The industry says it′s too expensive and unnecessary."
CNN PRESENTS: NO SURVIVORS - WHY TWA 800 COULD HAPPEN AGAIN features interviews with family members of those who perished in the crash, NTSB officials who eventually solved the case, former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, top officials from the FAA and the industry′s Air Transport Association. No Survivors was produced by Andy Segal, Jim Polk, Jeffrey Reid, Kimberly Arp Babbit and Ben Burnstein. The managing editor was Steve Robinson. CNN Presents is the most honored documentary program in cable news.