Return to Transcripts main page
Encore Presentation: CNN Presents: No Survivors
Aired August 13, 2006 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: TWA 800, climb and maintain 15,000.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We just saw an explosion out here, it just went down. In the water.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was no saving anyone.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was horrendous.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It happened instantly.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It blew up in the air and then we saw two fire balls go down into the water.
LEON PANETTA, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Immediately picked up the phone and called the president.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My initial reaction was, the plane could have been shot down.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: TWA 800.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that was him.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think so.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've lost him.
DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): You heard correctly. It could happen again. Not once, according to government experts, but several times over the next few decades. If that's not alarming to you, then consider how upsetting it was to the people who lost someone they loved on TWA 800, to learn that disasters like this had happened before and that all those deaths might have been prevented.
Every year, since that terrible day, friends and families have been coming to this beach on Long Island to look out over the water, where Flight 800 exploded and to remember their loss. And when they do, some ask the question, why? Why, after all these years, are jets, loaded with passengers, still taking a deadly risk?
DAVID MCCLAINE, PILOT WHO WITNESSED TWA 800 EXPLOSION: It blew up in the air and then we saw two fireballs go down to the water.
MATTINGLY: That was the voice of David McClaine -- piloting a 737 over Long Island, a bright light caught his eye.
MCCLAINE: And all of a sudden, boom! And almost instantly, a fraction of a second later, two streams of flames came out the bottom.
MATTINGLY: Another pilot, Captain Paul Whelan was in the cockpit of a Virgin Atlantic 747. He wrote this entry in his logbook. Saw TWA 800 crash.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I could see the cigar shape of the fuselage and the windows, and bits falling off, fire everywhere, and it falling into the sea.
MATTINGLY: TWA flight 800, a 747 like this, was one of several hundred flights at JFK airport in New York that day. What made it special was what it meant to the people on board. Missouri sisters Krisha and Brena Seebert (ph) couldn't wait to get started on their trip to France.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can almost visualize them, you know, on the plane, having a good time and they wasn't going to be any sleeping on the plane.
MATTINGLY: Older sister Krisha had plans to be married.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I kind of looked at it as their last chance to kind of be sisters and do silly things together.
MATTINGLY: In little Montoursville, Pennsylvania, 16 students in the high school French club and five chaperones were headed to Paris for what was meant to be the trip of a lifetime. These snapshots were taken only minutes before they boarded a bus for the long ride to JFK airport that day. Sheryl Nyberg's (ph) mother took the photos.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She was excited about seeing the Eiffel Tower and taking in all the sites. She had her pictures all lined up.
MATTINGLY: Pictures, what do you mean?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She was going to stand under the Eiffel Tower with a loaf of French bread.
MATTINGLY: And at age 23, rookie flight attendant Jill Simcowicz (ph) was following her passion for travel and making her mom nervous.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn't want her to fly. I was worried about it.
MATTINGLY (on camera): How long had she been with TWA?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Five weeks.
MATTINGLY: Five weeks.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This was her first international flight.
MATTINGLY: How was it she ended up on this flight with so little experience?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That was the sad part. She shouldn't have been on the flight, but somebody called in sick.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Jill phoned her mother she was leaving early for the airport.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I said you're going to be awfully tired. It was a hot day. I said honey, you're going to be exhausted. She goes no, mom, I'm psyched.
MATTINGLY: The forecast for the flight to Paris called for smooth sailing and for 12 minutes, it was.
Clyde Willis, captain of a dredging company boat, was first at the scene.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The water was just burning, and it kind of looked like it was burning maybe two-foot off the water. I mean it was just like a wall of fire.
MATTINGLY: Flames and wreckage for as far as the eye could see.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wings, tail section, cushions, seats, anything that would float really, and then we saw the first body, and it appeared to be like a 12-year-old girl.
MATTINGLY (on camera): Had you ever seen anything like this before in your life?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Never, and I hope I don't ever see it again.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Soon, there were the frantic phone calls. At home in New Jersey, Carol Simcowicz learned of the crash from a relative.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was such a shock. I think it was like being punched in the stomach. I still remember that feeling, like I almost passed out.
MATTINGLY: In Pennsylvania that night -- students hugged and cried. So did parents.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of shock, families here struggling just to, just to even accept what's taken place.
MATTINGLY: With only a glimmer of hope, families called the airport at TWA, desperate for information.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About every 15 seconds I'd hit the button, and get a busy signal, and when I finally did get through, a long time later, was, all they would do is take your name and number.
MATTINGLY: 230 men, women, and children. In the first few hours alone, the Coast Guard and others pulled 100 bodies from the water. An alert went out to the FBI. Jim Calstrom (ph), head of the New York office, believed the news was about to get worse.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would have bet my rather meager government paycheck that it was an act of terrorism. I think the conventional wisdom just swept through the United States, swept through the White House, swept through everywhere else, was that that was probably right.
MATTINGLY: Believing the nation had just been attacked, an investigation is launched, unprecedented, in the history of U.S. air travel. Coming up, it is a mystery in a million pieces, with clues scattered for miles, at the bottom of the ocean. The White House demands answers, and gets ready to retaliate.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The plane was in over a million pieces, a million pieces.
MATTINGLY: The FBI's Jim Calstrom arrived at dawn the next day at this small Coast Guard station, facing the toughest case of his career, convinced the crash of TWA 800 was an act of terrorism.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If it was, then the crime scene really was all of Long Island and a good portion of the Atlantic Ocean.
MATTINGLY: As the fog lifted from the sea that morning, this is what Calstrom saw.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Once you get to the site, which I did, early that next morning, at first light, and you see the debris floating, and you get down close and you get in the Coast Guard boat, and you actually see the bodies still being recovered, and you see the floating teddy bears and backpacks, and then you see them laying in the morgue, you know, the grandfathers, the parents, the married couples, the two-year-olds, the babies, the teenagers, it's shocking.
MATTINGLY: Dozens of bodies were laid out on the floor of this Coast Guard boat house.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was like getting really slapped with a brick along the head, just to walk in there and see that.
MATTINGLY: Among the first to be recovered, TWA rookie flight attendant Jill Simcowicz.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If anyone could be saved, it would be Jill, because she was, you know, strong, athletic, in good shape, a swimmer. But there was no saving anyone.
MATTINGLY: Working in first class with Jill was Janet Christopher, the senior flight attendant. She was the wife of an FBI agent, close friends of Jim Calstrom. The husband called.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Saying to me, "Jim, help me out. She's on the plane. Janet's on the plane. What's going on?" Of course, I didn't have a clue what was going on at that point. MATTINGLY: And the scope of the investigation was growing by the hour. The FBI would need to check the background of everyone on board, look at every airport worker who might have had access to the plane, question hundreds of eyewitnesses from miles around. Within days, investigators made a startling discovery. This is the roof of the first class cabin, the huge 747 jet had split apart in mid-air, the cockpit and first class section plunging into the sea. Radar readings showed the rest of the plane went on flying for a half-minute more.
(On camera): The final seconds must have been terrifying in the cockpit, just like this one, the instruments went dead. The pilots were helpless, unaware that their 747 had been beheaded.
(Voice-over): It was an all-too-eerie echo of the bombing of Pan am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Another jet decapitated, the explosives hidden in a suitcase by Libyan terrorists. Leon Panetta was President Clinton's chief of staff.
LEON PANETTA, CHIEF OF STAFF TO PRESIDENT CLINTON: When a 747 blows up as the one did in Scotland, your first assumption is that this is not an accident. This is a deliberate act, whether it's a bomb, whether it's a missile, what took place, somebody was responsible for blowing up that airplane.
MATTINGLY: Had the Pan Am flight not been running late, it too, would have exploded over the ocean, just as TWA did, just as this Air India 747 did in 1985. Another suitcase bomb, that one also linked to terrorists. Was TWA 800 the third such victim?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, my initial reaction was the plane could have been shot down with a shoulder-fired type missile. We had talked about that in the profession for a long time.
MATTINGLY: Hundreds of eyewitnesses on Long Island saw the sky light up.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was a tremendous ball of fire that just burst in the sky.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It looked like a mile in the sky of flame coming down, you know, straight down. I thought it was coming from the ground up because the flame looked like it was shooting from the ground up, if you know what I mean.
MATTINGLY: At the time, stinger missiles were missing from U.S. military arsenals from America to Afghanistan.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So the notion that some terrorist could have a missile wasn't very far-fetched.
MATTINGLY: The FBI would spend months and millions chasing that possibility.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think everybody in the government, Justice and the FBI and the White House, to my knowledge, thought it was highly likely it was an act of terrorism, but again, they're asking me for the proof or the evidence, and we didn't have any.
MATTINGLY: Day after day, flying is the safest form of travel. Disasters are rare, and when they do occur more often than not, they're the result of human error, a pilot's misjudgment, a maintenance mistake. This time, however, was not, and that's what made the crash of TWA flight 800 so puzzling from the beginning, so astonishing at the end. Within a week, Navy divers found the plane's black boxes, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder on the bottom, 130 feet down. But when investigators opened the boxes, they found no answers only silence in the final seconds in the cockpit.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The pilots didn't say there's a guy on the plane with a gun to my head. The pilots didn't say anything and the data didn't say anything. And yet, we had a fireball seen from 40 miles away. That had never happened before.
MATTINGLY: In the first few days, Calstrom met with the families at an airport hotel.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was just, it was just overwhelming.
MATTINGLY (on camera): What did they want to you say to them?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They wanted me to tell them what happened, and I didn't know.
MATTINGLY: By the end of the week, 140 bodies had been recovered, one was Brenna Seebert, the younger of the two sisters from Missouri, a free spirit who once came home with a tattoo on her shoulder that her mother disliked.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I said you realize that is a forever thing and you may change your mind and it's too bad and I went on and on and on and on to her, and when it happened, the one thing she was identified so quickly was because of the tattoo. And that came back, I kind of laughed, like yeah, Brenna knew what she was doing, I guess.
MATTINGLY: It was a mixed blessing for Helen Seebert when the official notification came.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He said, we found her, and I can remember hanging up the phone, and running through the house, so happy they found her. But in the same moment, I realized she was gone.
MATTINGLY: This was TWA 800, the same 747 seen at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York two years before the tragedy. This is TWA 800 now. Most of the fuselage reassembled in an NTSB hangar outside Washington, D.C. without the wings, tail or cockpit. You can actually see where the plane came apart. See those dark smoke marks behind the rip in the plane's body? Ahead of it, the front part is clean. That's where the first class section and cockpit fell off.
The explosion was here, in the center fuel tank. (on camera): I'm really struck by the size. You really could park a couple of cars in here.
JIM WILDY, NTSB METALS ENGINEER: The fuel tank is the size of about a two car garage.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): The center tank just below the passenger area is rarely used.
(on camera): How much fuel was in here at the time of the flight?
WILDY: The fuel tank was basically empty. I think it was 50 gallons, is what they calculated was the residual amount.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Only a thin layer of fuel on the bottom, but the fumes were more than enough to bring down the plane.
WILDY: That's the stuff that can ignite and burn, rapidly burn.
MATTINGLY: NTSB metals engineer Jim Wildy (ph) shows us where the blast blew out the tank wall.
WILDY: What happened was it fractured right across the top. This just takes place in a matter of a second, very much less than a portion of a second.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): When the tank exploded, Brenna and Chrisha Siebert were in coach, right up here, close to these windows.
(on camera): Where were they sitting?
MRS. SIEBERT: Right over the center fuel tank.
MATTINGLY: What do you think happened to them?
MR. SIEBERT: I'd like to think -- and I think that it happened instantly -- that there was no long delay of knowing what was happening.
MATTINGLY: When the plane starts to come apart, this is where it happens?
WILDY: Yes. This piece we're looking at here is the first piece that fractures away. And it makes a big hole as it drops down.
MATTINGLY: It's a pressurized cabin. The explosion weakness the structure of the plane. The air pressure inside the plane starts to blow itself apart?
WILDY: That's correct.
MATTINGLY: Things are flying out with the luggage, possibly passengers as well. The galley area is up here? That's going out as well? WILDY: Any structural or any type of things from inside the airplane that's loose, those things are free to be pushed out of this hole.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): The first class section broke off and fell away. It was unmarked by smoke or fire.
WILDY: There was no soot damage or soot accumulation on any of these pieces or on the nose pieces.
MATTINGLY: Almost impossible to believe, for about 30 seconds more, the coach section kept flying.
(on camera): The plane is flying without the forward third of it still attached.
How does that happen?
WILDY: The airplane has momentum. It doesn't stop in the air just when this happens. So it continues to have its speed, its velocity.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): There was not just one explosion, but two, that doomed the plane. See the soot on this wreckage. That second blast, half a minute later, erupted when the left wing tore away, leaking fuel from the much larger wing tank.
(on camera): What created that fireball that everybody saw?
WILDY: As the fuel is misting into the air, it finds an ignition source. And this all of a sudden flares up and creates this large fireball as the pieces are dropping to the water.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): CNN created this animation of what the NTSB describes as the last moments of TWA 800. Only 12 minutes after take off, the center fuel tank blast rips away the bottom of the plane. The cockpit and nose section plunge into the sea. For another half minute or so, the decapitated plane flies on. Then, it loses momentum and begins its deadly drop toward the ocean below.
The fireball is seen as far as 40 miles away in Connecticut.
Just under a minute after the center tank explosion, what is left of TWA 800 crashes into the sea.
All those people who thought they saw a flare or rocket or a missile, not so, says the NTSB. Missiles leave pockmarks on metal.
WILDY: And what you see, the shredded metal here.
MATTINGLY: This part came from an unmanned aircraft shot down in an FBI test.
(on camera): That little pit that you're pointing to right there, that's no bigger than the end of a pencil. WILDY: That's right. And these are very small particles and going very fast. And when they hit the surface, they create this pit or this micro crater.
MATTINGLY: Did you find anything like this in this aircraft?
WILDY: We examined every single piece of this airplane and not one piece had any of these characteristic signatures of an explosion of a bomb or a missile.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): The final judgment of the NTSB -- the tragedy of TWA 800 was not an act of terrorism. Instead, the huge plane blew up on its own, apparently the victim of a fundamental flaw in aircraft design and engineering. For many families, that conclusion was no less devastating.
(on camera): Would it have been any easier to deal with if it had been terrorism?
ZIEMKIEWICZ: No, because the end is the same. I still lost my daughter. And that's what I felt right from the beginning -- nothing is going to change anything.
MATTINGLY: Coming up, a conspiracy theory that won't go away.
DONALD NIBERT: I've reached a conclusion that a missile hit the airplane.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can understand why I want to continue the investigation.
KELSTRAM: It was misinformation cubed.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He ended up looking like a moron.
MATTINGLY: And the search for a cause -- could it happen again?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are overdue.
DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: Sixteen-year-old Cheryl Nibert boarded the flight to Paris after making jokes with her friends from Montoursville about the stains on her fingers. She had spent most of the summer picking raspberries on the family farm to help pay for her trip.
MATTINGLY (on camera): The minute the plane went down, this is where you were?
NIBERT: Yes, right over here.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Donald Nibert knows the exact place he was standing in the raspberry patch when the center fuel tank exploded. His daughter was seated several rows in front of the blast. MATTINGLY: Instead of berries, we now find an overgrown field that is sown with doubt and bitterness by a father who, from the very beginning, refused to believe official explanations of his daughter's death.
NIBERT: I've reached the conclusion that a missile hit the airplane. Probably friendly fire.
MATTINGLY (on camera): Where did it come from?
NIBERT: Came from our Navy.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Donald Nibert was not alone in reaching that conclusion. Less than 36 hours after the fireball flashed in the skies near Long Island, eyewitness accounts of a trail of fire, or red light, going skyward hit the worldwide web. That evening, Nadine Levine was visiting her West Hampton beach house. Her story of a possible missile was collected by websites.
LEVINE: What caught my eye was the little red light going up, and then all of that fiery stream coming down.
MATTINGLY: Investigators believe the red lights seen by eyewitnesses could have been an intense fire immediately after the fuel tank erupted. The fireball probably came next, as the wing fuel tanks, full of jet fuel, exploded as the resulting flames seemed to climb in the sky. A logical explanation that still does not satisfy everyone.
And compounding these compelling eyewitness accounts was a document also circulating on the web, one that took the missile theory and added layers of seemingly impossible intrigue. It was a theory of how a Navy ship accidentally shot down flight 800, and how a cover up reaching the highest levels of government was in play. And it might have stayed simply an internet conspiracy theory, had it not been for this man.
PIERRE SALINGER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's a document that I got about five weeks ago from an intelligence agent from France, and who had been doing an inquiry and had some contacts with people in the U.S. Navy.
MATTINGLY: It was Pierre Salinger, a former White House press secretary, U.S. senator, and network correspondent, who went public. Salinger, who died in 2004, claimed to have official proof that a Navy missile shot down TWA 800, specifically naming this ship, the "USS Normandy," responsible. But what Salinger to be official and exclusive was neither.
RON DUNSKY, FORMER CNN PRODUCER: I asked him to read me the document.
MATTINGLY: Former CNN producer Ron Dunsky, was the one who told Salinger the unsubstantiated document had been on the internet for months. DUNSKY: I said listen, I'm going to tell you something. Every word you say, I'm looking at a document that I have here. And he said, something, "Oh, my god, what are you talking about?" And it was a very unguarded moment. It was really expressing his true disbelief that what he had thought one moment was really quite an exclusive scoop was not.
MATTINGLY: Officials at the time called Salinger's claim a distraction that diverted important resources away from the investigation. Bob Francis worried about what effect the confusion might have had on the grieving families.
BOB FRANCIS, FORMER VICE CHAIRMAN OF THE NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: If you lost somebody and you knew that you lost that person as a result of an intentional act, that would be tough stuff to deal with. And he fed that. He didn't know what he was talking about. He was totally irresponsible. And he was an idiot.
MATTINGLY: Richard Russell is a former United Airlines pilot who also used to investigate crashes for the Airline Pilots' Association. It was his e-mail on the internet in 1996 that turned out to be Pierre Salinger's so-called proof of a friendly fire cover up.
RICHARD RUSSELL, FORMER UNITED AIRLINES PILOT: I have some friends in high places. They were in private industry, but they were an interface with the government agencies.
MATTINGLY: These friends in high places also gave Russell a tape of a New York area radar showing the last moments of TWA 800.
(on camera): Talk me through this. What are we looking at right here?
RUSSELL: Well, this is TWA 800. The time is 8:29 and 29 seconds.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): You can see the blip that is flight 800 stop in mid flight.
RUSSELL: Then he's coast.
MATTINGLY (on camera): What does that mean?
RUSSELL: That means that there's no more signal coming from TWA 800.
MATTINGLY: That's where the explosion happened?
RUSSELL: That is where it happened.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): But that same tape also shows other blips. One of them according to Russell, is the missile.
(on camera): If this is a missile, we're about 30 seconds away from the explosion.
RUSSELL: That's right.
MATTINGLY: How does it take a missile 30 seconds to reach that aircraft when it's so close?
RUSSELL: Well, I have no explanation for that.
MATTINGLY: We never actually see it cross the path of flight 800.
RUSSELL: You don't.
MATTINGLY: Jim Kallstrom and others in the investigation wonder why the facts are not strong enough to put to rest the ideas of a grand conspiracy.
KALLSTROM: There's some percentage of people that think this was a conspiracy. That's crazy. I'm going to keep the 1,000 agents and the FBI quiet on some conspiracy, or the 400 people on the "Normandy" aren't going to say anything to somebody. Now, you know and the public knows, more than two people know something, and it's horrendous or it's bad, it's not going to last a week.
MATTINGLY: Coming up: if it wasn't a bomb or a missile, what did bring down TWA Flight 800?
MATTINGLY: Late in the summer of 1996, Bob Swaim, an accident investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board, faced the biggest challenge of his career. He'd grown up around airplanes, he knew how to fly them and how to fix them. Now he had to figure out what caused this one to crash. And he was worried.
MATTINGLY: This isn't the only aircraft like this in the air.
BOB SWAIM, ACCIDENT INVESTIGATOR, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: No, and that was one of our concerns. The investigator's big concern is: will the next accident happen while I'm still working on this one?
MATTINGLY: With no evidence of a missile or bomb, Swaim believed that deep inside the plane was something that caused the center fuel tank to explode.
Like a detective, rounding up the usual suspects, Swaim looked first at the fuel pumps. A fuel pump running in an empty center tank was implicated as one of the potential causes in Manila six years earlier. The Philippines airline 737 was about to take off with 119 aboard. Eight died in the explosion. With TWA, two of the three fuel pumps from the center tank were recovered and analyzed.
SWAIM: Basically, we found nothing. We found no evidence that the fuel pumps were an ignition source.
MATTINGLY: Suspect number two, static electricity, was also a repeat offender. SWAIM: Fuel is a great source of static electricity. Each little molecule can carry a static charge. We had two 727s that had fuel tanks explosions because of static.
MATTINGLY: But after several tests...
SWAIM: We were reasonably confident that was not our culprit.
MATTINGLY (on camera): Suspect number one is out.
SWAIM: The fuel pumps.
MATTINGLY: Suspect number two is gone.
SWAIM: The static.
MATTINGLY: Who's left?
SWAIM: At about that point we're really, deeply getting into the wiring.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): There are literally hundreds of miles of wire in a 747. Swaim and his team inspected it inch by inch.
SWAIM: We'd look at wiring during the day, and there's nothing else to do. You pull wires at night. And you just sit there, and typically, it's, you know, a few of you and you're just chatting as you're looking through wires, just like a couple old ladies at a quilting bee.
MATTINGLY: They found problems in this, and other aging planes. Cracks in the insulation, some exposing the copper inside.
Much of the wiring in the first 747s was the same as the F-14s, state-of-the-art at the time, but the Navy had to replace much of that wiring in the 1980s at a cost of $350 million, because there were so many problems.
SWAIM: It was just getting to be a controversy. Gee, do we have a problem with these types of wire insulation? Well, the Navy is an extreme case. So maybe it's just a Navy problem.
MATTINGLY: It was not just a Navy problem. Wire in passenger jets was also being damaged by condensation, leaking hydraulic fluid, and metal drill shavings from repairs.
SWAIM: It's impractical to rewire an airplane.
MATTINGLY: Even a commercial jet?
SWAIM: You'd have to scrap the airplane and start over. The wiring's built in.
MATTINGLY: One critical clue was uncovered. When Swaim studied TWA's maintenance records and suddenly it all began to make sense. SWAIM: This airplane was having cabin light problems. The cabin lights in this airplane get up to 350 volts. In the same bundles are wires that directly or indirectly connect to the fuel tanks.
MATTINGLY: If you could look inside a 747's fuel tank, this is what you'd see: an array of electronic sensors, a high-tech version of a gas gauge in your car. They're powered by a tiny current, too small to cause an explosion. The problem is that those low voltage wires to the fuel tank are bundled with high voltage wires with the cabin lights. And remember, there were cracks in the insulation.
SWAIM: If you have a short circuit between the high voltage wire and low voltage wire, your energy is going into the fuel tank.
MATTINGLY (on camera): And that high voltage gets into this almost empty fuel tank that's full of fumes.
SWAIM: All it needs is a place to come out of the wiring in the fuel tank.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Swaim thinks that place was an electronic fuel sensor.
(On camera): And when that flash occurred, the fuel tank went and we have this.
MATTINGLY: After an unprecedented investigation, the NTSB found the probable cause was this: a short circuit and a spark.
Boeing declined our request for an interview, but said in a written statement that Boeing and the industry are continually working to "raise the safety bar and enhance an already safe fleet." The statement says, "Boeing is a strong advocate of fuel tank safety. Industry standards for ignition prevention have always been the basis of our designs." Industry standards for ignition prevention means designing planes to keep sparks out of the fuel tanks, rather than adding nitrogen to treat the flammable vapors inside.
SWAIM:m What we realized in this investigation was that was a fundamentally flawed concept.
MATTINGLY: Looking back at decades of accidents, Swaim and the NTSB saw a disturbing pattern. They counted on average one fuel tank explosion every four and a half years. True to the pattern, four years and eight months after Flight 800, a Thai Airways jet, about to take on 149 passengers, exploded on the ground in Bangkok. One person was killed.
(On camera): If this is happening every four and a half years, are we overdue?
SWAIM: We are. If you go strictly by the average number of weeks and months between fuel tank explosions, we are overdue.
MATTINGLY: All it takes is a spark in the fuel tank. Everyone in aviation knows it. And for decades, the FAA and the industry thought they could keep sparks away from the flammable vapors.
SWAIM: David, I can go back and show you document after document where industry and the FAA have believed that they found all the ignition sources, and then found another and another and another.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): 1963, Pan Am Flight 214 --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After taking off for Philadelphia, the jet ran into heavy weather.
MATTINGLY: It explodes in midair after being struck by lightning.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Eighty-one persons died in the fiery crash.
MATTINGLY: A few safety advocates saw the accident as a warning of more disasters to come. Cleave Kimmel, now retired and living in Montana, was one of them. While working for a defense contractor in the late 1950s, he had developed a system to prevent fuel tank explosions.
(On camera): What do you have to put into those tanks to keep them from blowing up?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I put nitrogen in.
MATTINGLY: Nitrogen pumped into fuel tanks forces out the oxygen. No oxygen, no explosions, because nitrogen doesn't burn. The Air Force bought the nitrogen system for the giant C-5 and other cargo planes at high risk in Vietnam. But in the mid '60s when Kimmel tried to sell it for passenger jets --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were very reluctant to admit that there was anything wrong with their safety record. And they simply backed off.
MATTINGLY: The early nitrogen systems were bulky and weighed about 2,000 pounds. Impractical, said the industry.
BASIL BARIMO, AIR TRANSPORT ASSOCIATION: Yes, you may have been able to install a system in the airplane but at the same time you couldn't put passengers on it because it was too heavy.
MATTINGLY: After the Flight 800 disaster, the FAA put together two advisory committees to study nitrogen safety equipment for commercial jets.
JOHN HICKEY, FAA: And the conclusion in both of those groups is that the -- it was not practical and the costs were in the $5, $10, $15, $20 billion range.
MATTINGLY: In other words the benefit was not worth the cost. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you put a price on your life? Can you put a price on your family's life?
MATTINGLY: Ten years after flight attendant Jill Ziemkiewicz died on TWA 800, her brother, Matt, worries she died in vain.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I understand the business side of it but when it comes to safety of people and the safety of my children and my family, absolutely not.
MATTINGLY: But in the ten years since the Flight 800 disaster, the National Transportation Safety Board has become impatient saying, "Airliner fuel tanks are as flammable today as they were ten years ago."
(On camera): Why has it taken so long? Is there anybody we can go to and pin the blame on and say why haven't you moved on this?
MARK ROSENKER, NTSB ACTING CHAIRMAN: Certainly we could talk to manufacturers. We could talk to operators. We could talk to the FAA about the issues of who is to blame. Blame isn't the issue here. It's a process, unfortunately, that has taken much too long.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): There has been progress. When the industry balked at the cost five years ago, the FAA took the lead to develop a practical way to prevent fuel tank explosions. Adapted from the technology on military planes, small filters like this process the nitrogen. The entire system is so light -- just 300 pounds. The FAA says it should now be required on most large passenger jets.
HICKEY: We're looking at potentially something that could prevent in the future another explosion from ever happening in the United States fleet.
MATTINGLY: Without it, the FAA predicts that four more catastrophic accidents like TWA 800 are virtually certain to occur over the next 50 years.
HICKEY: I feel that if I have a solution and it's one that I can say it's reasonably cost beneficial, it's something that I'm going to push forth and propose.
MATTINGLY: Boeing, which built the 747 that exploded 10 years ago, says it plans to equip all its new planes with a similar safety system by 2008, because, the company says, it's the right thing to do.
(On camera): But what about the 3,800 jets that are in service today? The FAA calculates retrofitting them would cost $300 million. The airlines, however, say it would cost much more than that, closer to $1 billion. And it's unnecessary, they argue because 10 years of safety improvements in wiring, maintenance, and fuel pumps have already removed the risk.
BARIMO: We feel very confident that we've gone in there and eliminated the ignition sources.
MATTINGLY: There was this same kind of confidence back in 1996, however, when TWA 800 proved that that way of thinking was wrong.
BARIMO: TWA 800 was a watershed event. And our safety record reflects that. We've seen dramatic improvements over the last 30 years.
MATTINGLY: The Air Transport Association, which represents U.S. airlines, projects just one fuel tank explosion in the next 40 years.
MATT ZIEMKIEWICZ, SISTER DIED ON TWA FLIGHT 800: They're playing the odds that it won't happen. You can't play games like this, and that's the problem.
MATTINGLY: On the shores of Long Island, a memorial has become a gathering place for the families of TWA 800: 230 names remind all who visit of the terrible loss of life.
But Matt Ziemkiewicz prefers to remember his sister from home and to try and forget his frustrations and the embrace of family. A garden in memory of Jill Ziemkiewicz was planted at a nature center near her family's New Jersey home, where jets taking off and landing create a constant sound of rolling thunder, a constant reminder of a tragedy that could happen again.
TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com