On the night of July 17, 1996 TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed off the coast of Long Island, killing everyone on board. For months, investigators focused on three possible causes — a bomb, mechanical failure, or a terrorist missile. While the NTSB eventually concluded that the jet had exploded due to mechanical failure, as far as many people are concerned, what truly happened has not been publicly admitted to.
According to most authorities, TWA Flight 800 crashed because its center fuel tank exploded.
The center tank lies at the heart of the 747, embedded among the spars that support its wings and resting atop the keel beam that runs along its belly. When the center tank exploded, it broke two of the wings' three spars and led to the fracture of the keel beam. After that, the forward fuselage failed and was ripped from the aircraft, which then disintegrated, plunging into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island. All 230 on board were killed.
There are many theories which attempt to explain the explosion:
1. Static electricity: Sloshing or leaking fuel builds up a static charge, causing a deadly spark. This is the NTSB's pick.
2. Fuel-probe residue: Mineral deposits on a fuel-level monitor reach dangerous temperatures, igniting the fuel.
3. A shaped charge: Small explosives planted on the center fuel tank could have caused the blast.
4. Chafing wires: Abrading wires near wing tank start a fire that blows back through vapor vent system to the center tank. This is the FAA's favorite.
5. Scavenge pump: A pump that bails fuel residue from the center tank overheats, touching off hot vapors.
6. Meteor: "Space junk," possibly small meteors or missile fragments, hit the jet. A trillion-to-one shot and by far the least likely explanation.
7. Friendly fire: TWA flight 800 was supposedly flying through the airspace near to where the Navy was firing ground (ship) based missiles at drone craft. The missile hit TWA by accident, resulting in an elaborate conspiracy/cover-up by the Navy, FBI, etc. Journalist Pierre Salinger was the most prominent backer of this explanation, and did much damage to his own reputation as a result.
8. Terrorists (American or foreign): who fired a ground based missile at flight 800, blowing it up.
9. NTSB lead investigator Bernard Loeb theorized that a small crack in the center fuel tank may have caused leaking fuel to form a cloud, which then discharged a deadly electric spark.
More than thirty witnesses claim to have seen an object rising up to and colliding with Flight 800 prior to the explosion.
The FBI, the Navy, and the NTSB all vigorously deny the terrorist missile or "friendly fire" theories. But many Americans, including relatives of those who perished, remain convinced.
Selected Data Sources:
The New York Times Magazine (November 12, 1996)
Aviation Week & Space Technology (July 29, 1996)
Newsweek (November 25, 1996, July 21, 1997)
Aviation Week & Space Technology (March 10, 1997, May 12, 1997, June 2, 1997).
Hover your mouse over the pictures below for captions.