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Encore Presentation: No Survivors: Why TWA 800 Could Happen Again
Aired January 7, 2007 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: 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?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And all of the 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 (INAUDIBLE) 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 of 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: 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: 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: 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: 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. 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. 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 FOR PRESIDENT BILL 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 is 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: 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: 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: B the summer of 1996, the word terrorism was entrenched in the American vocabulary.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was already an environment that was charged with terrorism.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was absolutely charged with terrorism. We were in a very high state of alert.
MATTINGLY: Only three years earlier, the first attack on the World Trade Center, the first Islamic assault on American soil. In the summer of '96, its mastermind, Ramsey Yousef was standing trial in New York for a separate plot, a plan to bomb American jetliners. In Atlanta the opening of the Olympics was only days away. Security officials were on edge, for good reason. This bombing in the park also was only days away. And in Washington that spring, intelligence agents heard death threats out of Iran or Sudan against national security adviser Anthony Lake.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I had had to stay in a safe house and be driven around in an armored car here in Washington very quietly.
MATTINGLY: In Saudi Arabia, just three weeks before TWA, a truck bomb blew open the Cobart (ph) Towers military housing complex. Nineteen American servicemen died. U.S. intelligence believed Iran was behind that bombing. Immediately, Iran became the leading suspect in the TWA tragedy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think our first thought was that when we got this news, that if it was terrorism, we wanted especially to look for an Iranian connection.
MATTINGLY: Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Pinetta.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I immediately picked up the phone and called the president just to alert him to the fact that it happened and obviously the concern at that moment was that this might very well be a terrorist act.
MATTINGLY: On that first night at the White House, there were discussions about bombing targets in Iran and elsewhere. Calstrom said the White House was anxious for evidence and answers.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If this was an act of terrorism, it had an awful lot of consequences.
MATTINGLY: We could be going to war.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely, if we knew who the perpetrators were.
MATTINGLY: We talked about Iran. Were there others?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of course, you don't want to rule any of them out.
MATTINGLY: Who else? Libya?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The usually suspects, to quote "Casablanca," Libya, private terrorist groups, Syria, et cetera, et cetera.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was no reason for it, other than a missile or a bomb.
MATTINGLY: Wayne Rogers lost a daughter, Pam Lichtner (ph) and two granddaughters on TWA 800.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shannon was the oldest. She was a little doll, she was the lady, and Katie was the tomboy. She was feisty, kind of like Pam in a way.
MATTINGLY: Rogers flew to New York where the families were staying in an airport hotel. He was thinking terrorism and he says so were many others. What did they want to do?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We wanted to attack whoever done the destruction to us, yes. If it was terrorists in the Middle East, go and bomb them, do whatever we have to. They're wiping our families out. We can wipe their families out.
MATTINGLY: But before long, the White House was starting to question the terrorism theory.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were not getting information to that effect. Nobody was taking credit for it.
MATTINGLY: Piece by piece, salvage ships were pulling the ruins of TWA 800 from waters off Long Island and the evidence Washington sought was not surfacing. In the luggage bins beneath first class, no signs of damage from the kind of bomb which destroyed Pan Am 103. All four engines were found, nothing to indicate a heat-seeking missile. Rows of passenger seats, the landing gear, everywhere investigators might expect to find tiny explosive imprints on the metal or bits of bomb material embedded in the plane, again, there was nothing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had the overhead racks. We had the seats. We had the floor tiles. We had the fuel tank. We had all these pieces and we saw no evidence of an explosion at all. MATTINGLY: Promising clues turned into dead-ends. Bob Francis ran the National Transportation Safety Board investigation.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Traces of nitroglycerin were found at one point in the cockpit and it turned out that, you know, somebody in first class or whatever it was had had heart medication.
MATTINGLY: And remember the two pilots, the eyewitnesses who saw TWA 800 blow apart in front of them? Both had flown in the military, both know what a missile looks like. Neither saw a missile that night.
PAUL WHELAN, 747 PILOT: I was aware from both the height of the ground and the fact that there were no vapor trails in the sky that it was unlikely to have been a missile that brought the aircraft down.
DAVID McCLAINE, 737 PILOT: I thought there was a bomb on board, that was my initial -- I did not see any missile at all.
MATTINGLY: So was it a bomb? Look at this, an electronic display of the actual sound of the explosion. Barely more than one-tenth of a second long, it is the last thing on the TWA cockpit recording. Seen here on an NTSB computer, at first glimpse the sound pattern does look very much like the bang that brought down Pan Am 103. It is not. The TWA blast is not as sudden. It does not peak as quickly.
JAMES CASH, NTSB: We could pretty much tell that it was not a bomb right from the very beginning.
MATTINGLY: Instead, the sound seemed more like something else experts had heard before, an explosion in the Philippines, an almost forgotten accident six years earlier. Eight people died when this Boeing 737 burst into flames while it was still on the ground in Manila. The fumes in an otherwise empty center fuel tank had ignited, right below the passenger compartment. Now, on Long Island, the NTSB investigators were finding tell-tale signs that flight 800's own center tank had also blown apart.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We knew early on the center fuel tank blew up, no question, no argument, the center fuel tank blew up. The question was, and is, what caused it to blow up?
MATTINGLY: Coming up -- looking for answers at the bottom of the sea.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): A saltwater stained photo from the bottom of the ocean -- flight attendant Jill Ziemkiewicz with her brother.
CAROL ZIEMKIEWICZ: This is a picture of Matt and Jill at his birthday. And she had it on her -- in her wallet.
MATTINGLY (on camera): Who found this photograph? One of the divers? ZIEMKIEWICZ: Yes.
MATTINGLY: Why do you keep this one out where you can see it every day?
ZIEMKIEWICZ: Because these things are my memories and this is what I like to look at and remember her by. It brings me comfort.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): A treasure from the sea -- an unexpected gift from Navy divers asked to do what had never been done before -- to comb through an underwater junkyard that stretched three miles wide and four miles long, to pick up the pieces and try to solve the puzzle of TWA 800.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?
MATTINGLY: The Navy sent two state-of-the-art salvage ships and brought along this one of a kind robot called "the deep drone" to help search the ocean floor 130 feet below.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Take a look at it right here. This is a half mile block here.
MATTINGLY: The Navy was on the scene more than three months.
(on camera): What was it like when you first went into the water and saw it firsthand?
BRENDAN MURPHY, NAVY DIVER: It was like diving through razor blades. And that's what we had. You had this sharp metal. Visibility two, five feet, sometimes zero.
PAUL MCMURTIE, NAVY DIVER: For a Navy diver, it's cold, it's deep, it's dark, it's dangerous. For a Navy diver, that usually means it's time to go to work.
MURPHY: In the very beginning, as you're lowered down, you're down 30, 40 feet and you start seeing wreckage that is jutting up from the bottom. And it is pieces of sharp metal that just looks like it's been torn apart. And all around this wreckage are wires and debris, papers and things like that. And as you slowly go down further and further, it just gets -- it gets worse.
MATTINGLY: Talk about wreckage, did any of this look like an airplane?
MCMURTIE: Sure. You could look at almost all the pieces and tell that it was from an airplane. Just a small corner of a window, right down to the beverage carts the stewardesses push around, you know? But nothing was intact, though.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)!
MATTINGLY (voice-over): It was left to Navy divers to recover the last 100 bodies from TWA 800. They tried to keep emotions inside and sometimes failed. MURPHY: I'll just never forget it. We were lifting wreckage onto another craft to be transported to shore. And a little patent leather Mickey Mouse purse fell out.
MATTINGLY: Little things did make identification easier. Cheryl Nibert was among the first to be brought back home.
DONALD NIBERT: She had a plane ticket with her name on it in her pocket.
MATTINGLY: Cheryl was one of the 16 students at Montoursville High School on the French Club trip. No town was hit harder. A media army invaded.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) body is (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of those students.
MATTINGLY: Feeding on grief.
(on camera): Did you feel like you were a prisoner even here in your own home, in your own town?
DONALD NIBERT: To some extent, yes. When we went to some events, memorial services, any service they would have, they would always have us threw a back door without going through the front door where the media would be.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): When Donald and Donna Nibert went to the cemetery to select a burial place for their daughter, a newspaper photographer caught them on camera.
DONALD NIBERT: He either had a very powerful telescopic lens or he was hiding behind one of the tombstones. He took our picture selecting the grave site. He caused my wife -- when she saw that, she just burst out in tears. If I would have known it at the time, I would have killed the man. I'd have ripped his throat right out.
MATTINGLY: Montoursville is a close-knit community where almost everyone shared the pain. But few knew what to say.
YVONNE MITCHELL: A lot of people would look at us and cry. Or they would walk around the end of an aisle in the store so they didn't have to speak to you, people that always would have before.
MATTINGLY: At times, some things are better left unsaid.
BOB FRANCIS, NTSB: One of the things that you hear people say in great tragedies like that is "I know how you feel." I mean that is the biggest crock. You know, unless you -- it's happened to you, you don't have a clue how these people feel.
MATTINGLY: More pain awaited the families. As the remains of TWA Flight 800 were laid out in this unused hangar in Long Island, the FBI made an unprecedented decision -- to take a plane that had shattered in a million pieces and put it back together. Slowly, from the floor of the hangar, the ghost of TWA 800 began to rise and take form again.
KELSTRAM: We ended up having about 97-1/2 percent of the airplane.
MATTINGLY: On a wintery day, families were invited to the hangar to view the airplane.
(on camera): Did you go out to that hangar?
ZIEMKIEWICZ: Yes, I did.
MATTINGLY: When you saw it, what do you think?
ZIEMKIEWICZ: I just about collapsed. It was very, very, very sad; very difficult to look at.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): For Jim Kelstram (ph), though, seeing the rebuilt plane would help close the case. He could see no outward blast from a bomb, no inward path made by a missile.
KELSTRAM: We couldn't find any straight lines. We had enough of the plane and we couldn't find any straight lines.
MATTINGLY (on camera): At what point do you realize we're not going to find any of this evidence, that there was no terrorism?
KELSTRAM: It was obvious after all the look-sees and the rebuilding of the airplane that we had no evidence. I was confident that there wasn't any evidence, because it didn't happen.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): When we return, the final 12 minutes of TWA Flight 800.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): 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 they ended the same. I still lost my daughter. And that's what I felt right from the beginning -- nothing is going to change anything.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Up next, lives lost all to soon, in Montoursville and across the country.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Next to the high school where 16 excited teenagers and their five chaperones waved good-bye to Montoursville, a circle of 21 maples rings a well-tended field. A towering monument lifts the figure of an angel toward the sky. Below, 21 names are carved in granite -- a permanent reminder of how, in an instant, life changed forever.
In the only remaining photo of the French Club and its chaperones taken before they boarded the bus, we see the smiling faces of the daughters of Donna Nibert and Yvonne Mitchell.
MITCHELL: This is where my kids used to come and play. If I'm going to feel Michelle (ph), this is pretty much where it is.
MATTINGLY: Fifteen-year-old Michelle Bohlin loved to dance and had a talent for languages. Cheryl Nibert had plans to take pictures of the trip for an article in the school paper.
DONNA NIBERT: Cheryl was 16 and she was a very happy, energetic young woman, lots of interests, lots of friends and activities.
MATTINGLY: The school, its activities, it students have always been the future and joy of Montoursville. The quiet small town couldn't handle the sudden loss of so many lives.
Yvonne Mitchell, Michelle's mother, tried losing herself in her work, teaching piano. But one day not long after the disaster, there came a cold realization.
MITCHELL: I lost at least a third of my students after it happened. One mother finally came up to me -- one had the guts to say well, I don't know that it's good for my little girl to be around you, because I don't know how you're going to act. And so I'm going to take her away and to another teacher. MATTINGLY: Donna and Donald Niebert also felt that chill.
DONNA NIBERT: The first time I went to the grocery store and when I got ready to check out, everybody stood back. And I was there like the lone stranger going through the checkout line. So the checkout person knew me and kind of looked at me and was crying.
MATTINGLY: In happier times, a walk through the center of town would be impossible without a wave or a pause for friendly conversation. But after Flight 800, some say the town's heart was broken.
DONNA NIBERT: Some people are afraid of what they don't understand. And I think that's why they would avoid us and they, you know, couldn't communicate. They felt their own pain and they couldn't cope with ours.
MATTINGLY: And in this town of just 4,500 people, the impact of 21 deaths was unimaginable.
DONNA NIBERT: Everybody in our community knew somebody. I don't think there would have been anyone that didn't have a connection or know the friend of or know the parent or -- so I think that's a little different than if you were from a large urban area.
MATTINGLY: Father Steven McGoff (ph) buried six of the Montoursville victims.
FATHER STEVE MCGOFF: I think that the event shattered that small town and created such a difficult time for so many people and so many families.
MATTINGLY: There were so many funerals, the high school gym had to be used for services. When they were over, some families couldn't find peace.
UNIDENTIFIED HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: How many friends did you lose when you were 15 years old?
UNIDENTIFIED HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: How do you normally deal with the death of a friend?
UNIDENTIFIED HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: Just knowing I'll never see them again.
MCGOFF: They couldn't walk away from it. They couldn't find a space where it was not being talked about, where they were not noticed, where they were not looked at. I think that it intensified, and, again, aggravated the experience of their loss and pain.
DONALD NIBERT: We continued going to church. At first, no one would sit in the same row we were in. No one would sit behind us or in front of us.
MATTINGLY (on camera): Why not? Was it they just didn't know what to say to you? DONALD NIBERT: They didn't know what to say, they didn't know what to do.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): The Nieberts realized that the only people who understood what they were going through were the other families. So they formed a support group and worked through their grief together.
DONNA NIBERT: We were all part of something that none of us asked to be a part of. And it was OK to cry together. It was OK to laugh together. We all need each other to get through some of these really bad things.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): The Montoursville families had each other. But the families of the other 209 victims were spread out across the country and the world. Many of them had to cope alone.
Near Chicago, Wayne Rogers, who lost his daughter Pam, and granddaughters Shannon and Katie, was caring for his terminally ill wife.
WAYNE ROGERS: I got tied up with the bottle a little too much right after the crash.
MATTINGLY (on camera): At the time you were drinking pretty heavily?
ROGERS: After the crash, yes.
MATTINGLY: Getting drunk?
ROGERS: Well, numb yourself, yes, basically. That's -- that's what it does.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Wayne's wife Betty died from emphysema two years after the crash. And even today, the events of 1996 affect his relationship with his other daughter and grandchildren.
ROGERS: I don't really want to get close to people anymore, real close, because I lost a third of my family and then I lost my wife two years later. And you build a wall around yourself. And it hurts so bad that you don't want to really experience any more, you know?
HELEN SIEBERT: I wanted to remember all of them on board.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): In Jefferson City, Missouri, Helen Siebert lost both of her daughters -- and then, her faith in god.
SIEBERT: I wouldn't go into mass. I was quite angry with this higher power person that's supposed to protect everybody.
MATTINGLY (on camera): You were mad at god?
SIEBERT: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Very mad.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): But on the first anniversary of Flight 800, Helen and her husband Larry were at the beach in Long Island near where the crash happened.
SIEBERT: I looked down the beach and here came this -- he looked like a giant to me, with his brown robes flowing in the breeze and his sandals. And he stopped and introduced himself to me and was talking with me very quietly. And he said something about god.
And I said, "I am very angry. Please don't go there." I said I am very angry with him."
He says, "That's OK. You can be angry. God understands."
And he was the first one that accepted my feelings.
MATTINGLY: That man on the beach was Father Michael Judge. On September 11, he died at the World Trade Center, giving last rites to a firefighter.
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: We ended up looking like a moron.
MATTINGLY: And the search for a cause -- could it happen again?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are overdue.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: TWA 800. We just had an explosion out there about five miles away.
NANEEN LEVINE: Deep down, I think it was a missile.
DONALD NIBERT: Probably friendly fire.
TOWER: It just went down in the water.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The recorder told us nothing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: An airline won't fly if they can't do it safely.
ROBERT SWAIM: You show me a vapor, and god will find an ignition source.
DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: 16-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: The minute the plane went down, this is where you were?
NIBERT: Yes, right over here.
MATTINGLY: 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.
NIBERT: I see this and I say I can't believe that I let this deteriorate to the extent that it has.
MATTINGLY: Why have you let it go?
NIBERT: Because of the memories, and not being able to come out here and pick berries with our daughter that I lost. I was the last one to pick it. It is too difficult.
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: Where did it come from?
NIBERT: Came from our Navy.
MATTINGLY: 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: 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 I got about five weeks ago from an intelligence agent from France, and who had been doing an inquiry, and it 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: But in spite of evidence to the contrary, collected by the FBI, Salinger persisted.
SALINGER: Now, this is even becoming more complicated. I can understand why I want to continue the investigation.
JIM KALLSTROM, FBI, NEW YORK: Never mind the fact the "USS Normandy" was too far away to even shoot its missiles at the plane; it didn't shoot any missiles. The ship-to-air missile from the USS Normandy would have blown that plane to smithereens. We would have found thousands of examples of high ex-plosives.
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 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: And yet even to this day a conspiracy theory still manages to take root. And for a grieving parent like Donald Nibert, his constant search for answers seems to yield even more mysteries.
Why did the NTSB find what you found? Are they involved in a cover up, is that what you're implying?
NIBERT: That's what I'm implying. MATTINGLY: In the years after the crash, Nibert acquired from the NTSB a copy of the electronic information from TWA 800's flight data recorder. Nibert says when he had it analyzed, he found four seconds of information were missing.
MATTINGLY: When you say missing, do you mean erased?
MATTINGLY: Coming up next. Why won't questions of a cover up go away? Why did so many people, like Naneen Levine see what looked like a missile?
LEVINE: I know what I saw that night, and I know it went up in the air, arced a little bit to the right, and then there was a big explosion.
MATTINGLY: That hot summer evening in July, 1996, Naneen Levine was visiting the family's long island beach house with her baby boy. As the sun was about to set she looked out a window toward the ocean, when she saw the explosion. Ten years ago, Levine shared her story with CNN. The FBI interviewed her twice.
LEVINE: The little red dot went up like this, sort of curved, came to just a point where I thought little fireworks were going to come down, or just fade and be a flare. And then like big, big, these would be a thick streams of fire, it was really very vertical.
MATTINGLY: A decade later, Levine's sketch remains unchanged, and so does her story.
LEVINE: The little red dot went up very quickly. Deep down, I think it was a missile, but I know that it's been refuted. I just know that it goes against what all the other eyewitness who is saw the red light go up saw.
MATTINGLY: What do you believe they were seeing that night?
KALLSTROM: I think the majority of people, we can come to a pretty rational explanation that they saw the plane coming apart in different stages of this tragedy.
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.
NTSB, FBI, all of them walked away from this satisfied that there was no missile, that there was not a single piece of evidence that said there was a missile. Why do you still believe that?
NIBERT: I talked to these eyewitnesses, and I believe them. MATTINGLY: There is an explanation for Donald Nibert's conspiracy theory as well. When he looks at the flight data recorder information and sees four missing seconds, the NTSB says he's actually looking at a gap that occurs when the recording resets for a new flight. What Nibert sees as evidence of a cover up, according to the NTSB, is normal.
KALLSTROM: The data recorder told us nothing. There was nothing abnormal on either box.
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 in 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.
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: You can see the blip that is flight 800 stop in mid flight.
RUSSELL: Then he's coast.
MATTINGLY: 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: But that same tape also shows other blips. One of them a cording to Russell, is the missile.
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.
(A PORTION OF THIS TRANSCRIPT HAS BEEN REMOVED)
MATTINGLY: But Russell remains convinced of a cover up.
It's been 10 years. Wouldn't someone have come forward, someone leaked information?
RUSSELL: Somebody, perhaps hit the wrong button. Nobody wants to take credit for that.
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, could the tragedy have been avoided?
How many lives do you think you could have saved?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Probably a great number.
MATTINGLY: Late in the summer of 1996, Bob Swain, 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.
There are five large fuel tanks on a 747, and the center tank is only needed for the longest of flights, and it wasn't used on that trip from New York to Paris. So, when TWA 800 took off, the 13,000 gallon tank contained only about 50 gallons of fuel, left over from a previous flight. 50 gallons, little more than a puddle, that soon turned to vapor.
SWAIM: It's like a London fog. That's the amount of fuel that's in the air in this vapor. Once you start to ignite the fog the pressure rise is phenomenal, and you rip the structure apart. MATTINGLY: In this footage of an NTSB test, you can see it happens in a split second.
So what set off the explosion on flight 800? Searching for the answers, Swaim discovered a tragic history of miscalculations.
1963, Pan Am flight 214.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After taking off for Philadelphia, a jet ran into heavy weather.
MATTINGLY: It explodes in midair after being struck by lightning.
At the time, did the industry believe that lightning could bring down an aircraft?
SWAIM: No, at that point in time, the theory was a metal structure would move the lightning around the fuel tank.
MATTINGLY: The conventional wisdom is wrong. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All aboard, 81 persons, died in the fiery crash.
MATTINGLY: A few safety advocates saw the accident as a warning of more disasters to come. Cleave Kimmel (ph), 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.
MATTINGLY: What do you have to put into those tanks to keep them from blowing up?
KIMMEL: Well, I put nitrogen in.
MATTINGLY: Nitrogen pumped into fuel tanks forces out the oxygen. No oxygen, no explosions, because nitrogen doesn't burn.
You see it works flawlessly.
KIMMEL: Yes, zero problems. Absolutely zero problems.
MATTINGLY: The air force bought the nitrogen system for the giant C-5, and other cargo plane at high risk in Vietnam. But in the mid '60s, when Kimmel tried to sell it for passenger jets...
How many commercial aircraft are you successful in getting this installed into?
KIMMEL: Well, how does zero sound?
MATTINGLY: The reason was simple, says Kimmel: cost. At a meeting in 1969, photos show a young Cleave Kimmel in the moment of the hard sell. His company demonstrated the system for the major manufacturers and airlines, including TWA and Boeing. The early nitrogen systems were bulky and weighed about 2,000 pounds. Impractical, said the industry.
BASIL BARIMO, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE AIR TRANSPORT ASSOCIATION: They were really not something that could be adapted to a commercial airplane operation.
MATTINGLY: Basil Barimo is a vice president of the Air Transport Association which represents U.S. airlines.
BARIMO: So 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: Fewer passengers means less revenue. Kimmel believes the decision came down to that, and the industry's image.
KIMMEL: They were very reluctant to admit that there was anything wrong with their safety record. And they simply backed off.
MATTINGLY: Did you believe that people were going to die because of this?
KIMMEL: Oh, absolutely. That was the main reason why we were doing all this.
MATTINGLY: People did die. After two additional crashes in the 1970s, 75 more deaths, Kimmel thought surely the federal aviation administration would require a nitrogen safety system. He was wrong.
JOHN HICKEY, FORMER BOEING ENGINEER: I think the fact is, there were no practical systems to put into the commercial airplanes.
MATTINGLY: John Hickey, a former Boeing engineer, is now one of the FAA's top safety officials. He says the nitrogen fuel tank systems made sense for military planes.
HICKEY: Military airplanes are shot at, commercial airplanes are not. Military airplanes may operate once a month, commercial airplanes operate 14 hours a day. You cannot simply take a military system and install it onto a commercial airplane.
MATTINGLY: So instead of Cleave Kimmel's nitrogen system, the FAA required less extensive, less expensive, and ultimately less effective, design changes.
KIMMEL: I thought it was a patch, a way out, I guess I would say. Why commit to a full safety system when you can put a patch on the inner tube?
SWAIM: It's a huge, huge jigsaw puzzle.
MATTINGLY: After Flight 800 blew up, NTSB investigators, including Bob Swaim, realized the Boeing 747 was especially vulnerable. Why? Because the air conditioners under the center fuel tanks generate heat. And as fuel tanks get hot, the vapors inside are increasingly flammable. SWAIM: Parts of this assembly get up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. That heat is radiating off this, as hot as you would cook a chicken in an oven.
MATTINGLY: And how close is it to the fuel tank?
SWAIM: At its closest point its within a couple of inches.
MATTINGLY: 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. In other words, it doesn't matter how hot it gets, as long as something isn't there to set it off?
SWAIM: That's correct.
MATTINGLY: And they thought they had taken care of all of that?
MATTINGLY: How do you get rid of all potential ignition sources? Is that possible?
SWAIM: You show me a vapor and god will find an ignition source.
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.
BASIL BARIMO, AIR TRANSPORT ASSOCIATION: The industry was operating airplanes the best way they knew how to at the time, using the best available information.
MATTINGLY: There's just one problem. Is it possible to get rid of all these ignition sources?
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: So what was it this time? 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. Suspect number one is out, the fuel pumps. Suspect number two is gone, the static.
MATTINGLY: Who's left?
SWAIM: At about that point we're really, deeply getting into the wiring.
MATTINGLY: 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.
SWAIM: And this is only on one that's on the outside. What about all the wires that are inside? What about the wire behind it? Is it cracked or not? You can't tell visually. There's another crack right here.
MATTINGLY: My finger was almost right on it, I didn't even see that.
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 place 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: Especially a commercial jet. It would be cost prohibitive. 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 could you 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: 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: Swaim thinks that place was an electronic fuel sensor.
SWAIM: And when that flash occurred, the fuel tank went and we have this.
After an unprecedented investigation, that began with the wreckage of a jumbo jet blasted into countless pieces and scattered for miles across the ocean floor, the NTSB found the probable cause was this, a short circuit and a spark.
How positive were you that this was the cause?
SWAIM: As the systems investigator, I was very positive. Very positive.
MATTINGLY: Bob Swaim and the NTSB were equally certain there was a bigger problem, the notion that engineers could keep all ignition sources out of the fuel tanks.
SWAIM: What we've realized in this investigation is 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.
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: Pam Lychner (ph) was an activist for the rights of victims of violent crime. When Pam and her two daughters, Sharon and Katie, died on TWA Flight 800...
PAM LYCHNER (ph), DIED IN TWA FLIGHT 800 CRASH: I want you to know they are not forgotten.
WAYNE ROGERS, FATHER OF PAM LYCHNER (ph) : It's comforting to me to listen to her.
MATTINGLY: Her father, Wayne Rogers, says he began to feel like a victim as well.
Who do you blame most for this?
ROGERS: The FAA.
MATTINGLY: In 1996, nitrogen safety systems that might have prevented the center fuel tank on Flight 800 from exploding had been a success in military aircraft for decades. But the FAA never ordered their use in commercial jets.
ROGERS: The FAA doesn't act. They react. And they react 10, 20 years too late.
MATTINGLY: After this fuel tank explosion back in 1963, the old Civil Aeronautics Board pushed the FAA unsuccessfully to adopt the nitrogen safety system. The NTSB did the same after this Connecticut crash in 1971.
So in 1996, after Flight 800 exploded in the skies over New York, the NTSB appealed again to the FAA.
SWAIM: we had done our homework. We had already found the technology existed. We knew it was in use.
MATTINGLY: Even before TWA 800, the Air Force had already developed a lighter, more efficient nitrogen system. It was being used in a high-tech fighter, the F-22. So it was hoped the FAA and the aviation industry would use this new technology in passenger jets as well.
What was the initial reaction?
SWAIM: The initial reaction was that we were totally wet, that this would never happen, that it was cost-prohibitive.
MATTINGLY: In other words, the benefit was not worth the cost. ROGERS: Yes. They put a price on my daughter's head, and my granddaughters. And that doesn't set well with me.
MATTINGLY: Wayne Rogers and others are critical of a legally required part of government safety decisions that weighs the price of safety improvements against their results. It's called cost benefit analysis.
When it comes to issues of safety, why does cost and benefit have to be applied to any sort of decision?
JOHN HICKEY, FAA: Well, cost benefit is a tool I think any good government uses. If you don't use that tool, you aren't being very effective.
MATTINGLY: John Hickey is the FAA's director of aircraft certification. After the Flight 800 disaster, the FAA put together two advisory committees to study nitrogen safety equipment for commercial jets.
HICKEY: And the conclusion in both of those groups is that the cost -- it was not practical and the costs were in the $5 billion, $10 billion, $15 billion, $20 billion range.
MATTINGLY: Once again, the benefit was not seen as justifying the cost. And the FAA stopped short of ordering nitrogen systems for the commercial fleet.
How do you explain this to the families, families of Flight 800 who believe that their loved ones had a dollar figure put on their lives?
HICKEY: Well, I don't think in this safety world that we look at it as there's a dollar figure placed on anyone's lives. We look at it as it's a continuous push towards improving safety in commercial aviation.
MATTINGLY: Is there a dollar figure on a human life?
HICKEY: In the formal government analysis of doing cost benefit there are figures available and placed on an individuals.
MATTINGLY: Do you know what a human life goes for these days?
HICKEY: Human lives are very important to me and anyone who is involved in aviation safety.
MATTINGLY: This figure from the Department of Transportation, does this sound familiar -- $2.7 million?
HICKEY: Cost benefit, as I indicated earlier, does have certain figures in the formulas for preparing a document that goes for the general public.
MATTINGLY: You know what this sounds like to me, as an air traveler, that sometimes it might be cheaper to lose a plane full of people than it is to address a possible safety problem.
BASIL BARIMO, AIR TRANSPORT ASSOCIATION: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.
MATTINGLY: Basil Barimo of the Air Transport Association.
BARIMO: The tragedy for us would be being forced to invest in something that really does nothing for the flying public.
MATTINGLY: Barimo is justifiably proud of his industry's record as the safest form of travel around. The carriers he represents take no position on nitrogen safety devices on new aircraft. They openly oppose, however, retrofitting the thousands of passenger jets already in the air.
BARIMO: TWA 800 was a tragedy, and no one will dispute that. And the industry has been very methodical in the way it approaches safety and has focused on identifying the highest risks to safety. And fuel tank flammability, frankly, was not on that list.
MATTINGLY: Manufacturers had always insisted that their planes were safe, but the FAA wasn't so sure. So five years after TWA 800, it orders the industry to go back and look again for anything that might cause a fuel tank to explode, and what they found was astonishing.
According to an FAA report, manufacturers found 80 new potential problems, 80 unsafe conditions that, if ignored, could lead to another fuel tank explosion.
Did that surprise you?
HICKEY: Well, I think it surprised a lot of us and I think that's part of the lesson that we learned from TWA 800.
MATTINGLY: What has the FAA put in place as a result of Flight 800 to date?
HICKEY: I have ordered almost 100 changes to designs of fuel tanks in the current fleet.
MATTINGLY: Making fuel tanks safe from exploding fuel vapors continues to sit near the top of the NTSB's most wanted list. Progress, it notes, is moving slowly.
Wayne Rogers says he no longer flies, not out of fear for his safety, but out of bitterness.
ROGERS: It's a lost feeling. At least if it was a terrorist, we could react and do something, but when it's our own government, you can't retaliate.
MATTINGLY: Coming up, 10 years after TWA 800, are changes in safety on the horizon?
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) MATT ZIEMKIEWICZ, BROTHER OF JILL ZIEMKIEWICZ: God, do I miss her. Life would be so different today if she was still here.
MATTINGLY: Ten years after Flight Attendant Jill Ziemkiewicz died on TWA 800, her brother, Matt, worries she died in vain.
The potential still exists for another catastrophic explosion, just like the one that took 230 lives in 1996.
Do you fly today?
ZIEMKIEWICZ: Reluctantly. A lot of hesitation. I just have to psych myself up to get on an airplane. It's a very anxious time to get on a plane for me.
MATTINGLY: By profession, Matt Ziemkiewicz coordinates emergency management in Rutherford, New Jersey. But he has also become a prominent advocate for air safety. He understands how public safety regulations evolve.
ZIEMKIEWICZ: It's based upon lessons learned from previous accidents. This isn't any different. We've learned lessons already with the center fuel tank explosions. We learned those lessons a long time ago. We didn't pay attention to it. TWA 800 came around again. It happened. It's happened several times since 800. These are definitely lessons learned.
MATTINGLY: May 2006, yet another lesson, from India. Photos show where a short circuit sparked a fuel tank explosion in the wing. Fortunately, the plane was on the ground, and no one was hurt.
But in the 10 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."
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: Well, certainly we could talk to manufacturers. We could talk to operators. We could talk to the FAA about the issues of who's to blame. Blame isn't the issue here. It is a process, unfortunately, that has taken much too long.
MATTINGLY: 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, it uses nonflammable nitrogen to force flammable oxygen from the tanks. 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.
So in essence, we're looking at the legacy of Flight 800 right here when it comes to safety?
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 t the FAA predicts that four more catastrophic accidents like TWA 800 are virtually certain to occur, over the next 50 years. And the agency says there's a strong chance there could be more.
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.
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.
ZIEMKIEWICZ: They're playing the odds that it won't happen. My question is what if the odds go bad, would they be comfortable having one of their children on that airplane that goes down because of something that they're playing the odds over?
MATTINGLY: On the shores of Long Island, a memorial has become a gathering place for the families of TWA 800. Fourteen flags fly overhead, one for each nation represented on board; 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.
ZIEMKIEWICZ: These are people's lives you're dealing with. You can't play games like this, and that's the problem.
MATTINGLY: 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.
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