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NTSB Chairman Jim Hall Opens TWA Flight 800 Final Report Review

Aired August 22, 2000 - 9:36 a.m. ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to take you live to Washington now, where Jim Hall, chairman of the NTSB, has just begun the meetings with regard to the TWA Flight 800 crash, and the review of the final report. He has welcomed surviving family members and we are going to listen in.


JIM HALL, NTSB CHAIRMAN: ... many private citizens who made valiant efforts in the immediate hours and days after the aircraft went down.

I would also like to thank the Coast Guard, the Navy, the FBI, NOAA, and the many other state and federal agencies that assumed major roles in the search and recovery effort.

I would like to note the encouragement and support we have received from the White House and Congress in providing the resources needed to conduct what has become the most extensive, complex and expensive investigation in the Safety Board's 33 year history.

From the beginning, the scope and dimensions of this investigation have been extraordinary. The salvage effort, organized by the Navy, one of the largest diver-assisted salvage operations ever conducted, extended from July to November, 1996.

The Navy divers worked in very difficult and dangerous conditions and, for a time, their efforts had to be halted because of the onset of the Atlantic hurricane season.

When the diving operations were completed, there followed months of work by contracted fishing trollers that scoured hundreds of miles of the ocean floor.

In the end, we recovered the remains of all 230 victims, and more than 95 percent of the aircraft. The reconstruction of the 93-foot segment of the fuselage, including the center wing fuel tank, was unique both in size and scope. More than 30 people worked meticulously for many month to sort through innumerable pieces of wreckage and assemble the wreckage in an effort to better understand what happened to flight 800.

The number of organizations, public and private, that played a significant role in this investigation is extensive. I want to pause for a few minutes, so you can see the almost 500 names of those entities and individuals that contributed to the investigative process. I direct your attention to the screens in front of you.

PHILLIPS: Once again, Jim Hall, chairman of the NTSB, has just begun the meeting, with regard to the TWA 800 crash. What you are looking at now are the 500 -- a list of the 500 individuals and various entities that helped and participated in the investigation of the crash. You can see the number of people involved and organizations involved.

Jim Hall pointed out too that it's all of these people and entities that contributed to the recovery of every single one of the victims, 230 victims on board that aircraft. Also, all of these individuals contributed to the investigation of the aircraft, 90 percent of the aircraft was recovered. And that helped, of course, the particular investigators look into the cause of the crash.

Once again, Jim Hall, chairman of the NTSB, has begun the meetings with regard to the TWA 800 crash and the review of the final report. He has welcomed surviving family members who are there at the meetings. We will be hearing from Bernie Loeb, the head investigator, coming up after Jim Hall. And this again is the group of the 500 entities and individuals who all participated in the investigation -- Bill.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Once again with us from Washington, Susan Coughlin, our analyst, transportation analyst on this matter.

Susan, can you hear me again?


HEMMER: When we are all said and done, not only with this two- day meeting, but with the conclusion of this report, what do you think we will look back and learn? will we make flying safer for the public in America?

COUGHLIN: You know, Bill, I really think that the mission of the NTSB is to do just that. Let's face it, we're never going to reduce the risk of flying to zero. It's the nature of flying.

But I think this accident investigation and every other accident investigation conducted by the NTSB, their objective is to prevent a recurrence of this type of accident, again, by learning specifically, in this case, more about the volatility of fuel and vapor, more about the ignition sources that are present, more about the eliminating the combustion, or the presence of oxygen. And I think that's the most significant thing coming out of this accident because we have taken such a close look at the -- the fire triangle, if you will and really made a lot of progress.

More is to be done, and I think that the NTSB will require some of that today, but I think that aviation safety will be improved and was improved by this very tragic accident. HEMMER: And again, you may remember, as we well do back in July of 1996, when that plane went down, starting just about sundown, 8:30 p.m., a little bit past that on the 17th of July, just off the coast of East Moriches (ph) in Long Island. And since that, folks like Jim Hall, and you remember the names like Bob Francis and James Kallstrom, who was always at the microphone for the months that followed that crash, giving the public updates, not only in this country, but also back in Europe.

And you think back and wonder, based on what is happening with Jim Hall today, and the names we are seeing up there, it appears they are pretty proud of the work they did, and the moments after that crash and the four years since then, correct or not?

COUGHLIN: I think that is correct. It is the mission of the NTSB is one that everyone looks up to. I think they can be justifiably proud of every aspect of the investigation, but particularly this one, because they went above and beyond to turn every stone over, to be sure that they weren't missing any opportunity to understand why this event occurred. And I think that they have done a miraculous job, and I believe, and I think most aviation experts agree with me, that aviation safety is served by it.

HEMMER: All right, Susan Coughlin, stand by there in Washington.

Back now to Jim Hall, who continues his testimony today.

HALL: ... to study the temperatures and environment inside the aircraft's center wing tank. We also conducted extensive research into the composition and explosive characteristics of jet A fuel. In addition, we conducted tests and computer simulation work to study flame and pressure propagation in the center-wing tank.

Earlier on in the process, investigators began looking at what roll electromagnetic interference from external emitters or sources internal to the aircraft may have played in the crash.

The investigation also included the most extensive radar data study in the board's history, including a review of several hundred thousand radar returns from nine radar locations in five states.

The investigative team also spent a great deal of time organizing and carefully analyzing the summaries of witness interviews, the Federal Bureau of Investigation provided to the board.

We will be reviewing the work done by the witness group and many of the others in the course of this meeting. All of the investigative work undertaken as part of this investigation, was extremely complex. Because of the need for precision, and in some cases, the danger posed to those performing the test, the work had to be painstakingly done to make sure that it was done properly, safely and accurately.

And of course, it was not inexpensive. We are fortunate to secure the assistance of a broad array of institutions, including the Department of Defense laboratories at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and the Navy's China Lake and Pawtuxet (ph) Rover facilities. Important work was also done at NASA's Langley Research Center and the Sandia Laboratories, among others.

We also contracted with private institutions, such as the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Nevada-Reno, and various specialties to conduct research.

Experts from other countries, including the United Kingdom, Norway and Canada, also assisted us. And the French aviation authorities participated under the terms of the Convention on International Civil Aviation.

Much has been learned over the course of the past four years. And the five board members seated before you will be examining and discussing the results of the staff's work during this sunshine meeting.

I must emphasize that, over the next two day, you will observe some extremely technical discussion about the issues raised in the investigation. In preparation for this meeting, the board members each read the 684-page report and the 177 pages of information that were provided in party submissions.

The extensive record of this investigation now approaches some 15,000 pages, and is available to everyone in the board's public docket. The investigative group's factual reports can also be found on our Web page, the other supporting documentation is available in CD-ROM format.

During the course of this investigation, the board received a great number of suggestions and comments from many individuals and organizations on possible causes of the crash of flight 800, and recommendations for possible lines of investigation.

Much of this commentary has been well-informed and we appreciated receiving it. Safety board staff has reviewed all of this material and took those ideas that appeared to have a scientific basis and offered a reasonable line of inquiry into account as the accident investigation progressed.

In the early months of the investigation, it became clear that an explosion of flammable vapors in the aircraft's center-wing tank initiated the break-up and subsequent crash of Flight 800.

In December, 1996, based on the board's conclusion, that heated flammable vapors in the aircraft fuel tank poses a serious risk to safe flight, the board recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration study design changes to deal with this problem and, in the interim, they require operational exchanges to enhance safety.

In April, 1998, the board issued another set of recommendations focused on aircraft wiring and the fuel quality -- quantity indication system.

During this meeting, we will be assessing what has been done in response to those recommendations, as well as what remains to be accomplished. More broadly, the flight 800 investigation has uncovered and focused the attention of the aviation community on some very important safety issues: fuel tank protection; the vulnerability of aircraft wiring; and a number of aging aircraft issues.

We will pursue each of these items in some detail over the next two days.

This is a lot of ground to cover, but before moving ahead, I would like to make one additional comment. I know that. at the outset, many believe that the crash of flight 800 was caused by a criminal act and, for many, the efforts of the times, the ongoing court trials and the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings in New York, and the heightened concern about terrorism at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, seemed to lead a certain credence to the notion.

Certainly, the nature of the event, and its rarity, led some to question whether the crash of flight 800 was really an accident. As many of you know, a substantial law enforcement investigation was conducted in parallel with the safety board's investigation.

After conducting a thorough investigation, the FBI suspended its investigation in November, 1997, indicating that no evidence had been found to indicate that a criminal act was the cause of the tragedy of TWA Flight 800.

Despite this finding, by our nation's law enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, some have urged the safety board to assume, in effect, a law enforcement role, to prove or disprove, their assertion that the crash of flight 800 was the result of a bomb or a missile. That is beyond this agency's mandate and authority.

Our focus is safety. Our people are aviators, engineers and scientists. I believe some of the best in the world. But they are not criminal investigators.

However, even though our law enforcement -- even though our employees are not law enforcement personnel, they examined every piece of wreckage, for any physical evidence that the crash -- that the crash of flight 800 could have been caused by a bomb or a missile.

Had we found such evidence, we would have immediately referred the matter back to the appropriate law enforcement agencies for their action.

Let me state unequivocally, the Safety Board has found no evidence.

To the families of flight 800, I would like to add this comment. It is unfortunate that a small number of people, pursuing their own agendas, have persisted in making unfounded charges of a government cover-up in this investigation. These people do a grievous injustice to the many dedicated individuals, civilian and military, who had been involved in this investigation. Some 75 NTSB members have participated in this investigation. I'll pause while their name are listed on the screens in front of you.

PHILLIPS: NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, beginning the meetings that are going to take place, with regard to discussing the final report of the review of the investigation concerning the crash of TWA Flight 800.

We will be continuing our coverage and checking in on what is going to be discussed and what has been discussed. Once again, he was talking about the 500 entities and individuals involved, experts from all over the world with the investigation. And that the FAA has made a number of changes, recommendations have been made since the crash, operational issues, design, aircraft wiring, fuel tank protection. All of these things will be discussed. We will bring that to you and what has been done since the changes have been made.

Once again. Jim Hall emphasizing that no evidence was found with regard to the crash being caused by a criminal act, also with regard to a governmental cover-up.

We will continue to follow this as it continues throughout the morning.



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