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Author Christine Negroni: TWA Flight 800 crash

July 17, 2000
Posted at: 6:45 p.m. EDT

(CNN) July 17 marked the anniversary of one of the worst aviation tragedies in U.S. history, an in-flight explosion aboard Trans World Airlines Flight 800 that took the lives of 230 people in 1996. An examination of the crash and the massive government investigation that followed is documented in the book "Deadly Departure."

An award-winning broadcast journalist, author Christine Negroni covered aviation news for CNN. She has also worked for PBS, CBS News and several local television stations.

Chat Moderator: Welcome to CNN News Chat, Christine Negroni.

Christine Negroni: I love the opportunity to talk to people in this way. What "Deadly Departure" gave me the opportunity to do was to explore the various threads that came together. So, the ability to talk about the book in a manner where various folks can come back to me about what specifically interests them, that's a unique opportunity, and one that I appreciate.

Chat Moderator: Please tell us a bit about your book, "Deadly Departure."

Christine Negroni: "Deadly Departure" is actually two books in one. It is both the examination into a known aviation design problem, how it was overlooked for so many years, and it is also a book about some of the people whose lives were so profoundly changed.

I'm not speaking specifically of the people who lost someone on the plane, though some of their stories are in "Deadly Departure," but the bigger picture of how this one event reaches across time to accidents that happened in the 1960s and, unfortunately I fear, accidents that may happen in the future.

So, in putting together "Deadly Departure," I try to weave these two separate tangents together. It's not a highly technical book; in fact it's not a technical book, although it explains the technical cause of this crash. It's not an air safety book, although I hope it raises in the public mind an air safety issue that exists to this day. And it's not a sentimental book, although it deals with tragic loss. It puts all of these human, technical, scientific, political stories together.

Question from Carl: I have a question regarding the fuel tanks. Didn't the exact same thing happen to an Air-India flight and an Aer Lingus flight in the same model 747?

Christine Negroni: I'm not familiar with either of those. I don't believe that that's the case.

Question from Blasie: Why did you put aside the very plausible missile theory?

Christine Negroni: I did not put aside the various reasons that investigators initially thought may have caused the accident. I could not tell the story in "Deadly Departure" without talking about why initially this accident was thought to be a criminal act.

The amazing thing to me is that there is so much talk about a missile bringing down this plane by so many people who have never seen the wreckage; never examined the fuel flammability studies; never interviewed or even read the reports of eyewitnesses; never saw the analysis of the radar data; never read the transcripts from the cockpit voice recorder; and never understood the information contained in the flight data recorder.

In short, they don't know any of the facts! Yet, they've made up their minds that the real facts are being covered up. I can't understand that.

If someone wanted to cover something up about this airplane crash, what is it more likely to be, that a missile shot down an airplane -- either by accidental friendly fire or by terrorist fire -- or the fact that Boeing has a problem, a multi-billion dollar problem, that affects EVERY SINGLE AIRCRAFT they make, 8,000 planes.

Who's got a problem to cover up? This is not to suggest that Boeing is trying to cover up their liability in this crash, but when you look at this, who is protected by all these nonsensical ideas about a missile, the manufacturer of a defective plane. So, when folks choose to go on and on about their ill-informed theories of what happened to this plane, they serve well the interests of Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration, two organizations that knew about the problem in the design of the Boeing 747 from the first day it flew.

When I say they knew about the problems, they knew that they had a fuel tank that could explode, and they made an active decision not to use technology that would prevent explosions. They made that decision on the 747 around 1968. They made the same decision when they produced the 757, the 767 and the 777.

Question from Candyce-CNN: Were you able to easily get access to documents and other evidence while researching for the book?

Christine Negroni: Some documents were easier to access than others because I'm talking about research and proposed aviation regulations from the 1960s. Many of the documents that I had to retrieve were difficult to get. Many of the experts are quite old. But it is interesting to note that many of these engineers that I was interviewing are in their 80s and 90s. When they heard about the crash of TWA 800, they realized it was an issue that they'd spent their entire career on.

Question from RadioFlyr: Commercial aircraft are to undergo a rigorous, complete inspection every 2,000 flight hours. When was the last known inspection, and where was the last inspection? Is there a source which will be held accountable?

Christine Negroni: You're referring to a "D" check; that's a real complete and thorough examination of the aircraft, practically, but not completely, down to the studs. Now the question of when the last "D" check was done is in my book. The date of the last "D" check on that aircraft is in the book and, at this exact moment, I'm having difficulty finding that date.

If I can answer the larger question, though, because what I think you're asking is the larger question, "Is maintenance culpable here?" I would say this. The TWA aircraft had completed all of its required maintenance, including an aging aircraft structural inspection because it was 25 years old. It was not thought to have been a factor in the crash. Maintenance was not thought to be a factor in the crash, with one exception.

The exception is this. Even though the FAA has made dramatic efforts over the past decade to inspect older aircraft for age-related weaknesses that compromise the plane's integrity, there is no inspection to determine the integrity of wiring, no matter how old the airplane. This means that if you're on a 25-year-old airplane, the fuel pumps may be new, the cables may be new, the seats may be new, but more than likely, that wiring is going to be the same wiring that was pulled through that aircraft at the time it was made.

I would say that as a consequence of TWA Flight 800, the FAA is now trying to come up with some sort of "aging system" inspection program, the "system" referring to the plane's wiring, its electrical system, along with other systems that are similarly not examined.

Question from Chuck: What exactly is the defect you are describing, and how can it be prevented?

Christine Negroni: All Boeing airliners that begin with the number seven, from the 707 to the 777, are designed with a center fuel tank, sometimes called a center wing tank. It's located where the wings join the fuselage, so it is the only fuel tank on which passenger seats can be affixed. Other fuel tanks are on the wings.

Again, on all of these airliners, Boeing has installed heat generating equipment machines directly below the center wing tank. As a consequence, the fuel tank is hot quite often -- so hot, in fact, that 30 percent of the time, the fuel vapors in the tank are hot enough to explode if there is a source of ignition in the tank.

The FAA has, beginning in the 60s, certified this design as safe for one reason, and one reason alone. They believe, the FAA believes, that by isolating ignition sources -- keeping ignition sources out of the tank, in other words -- it doesn't matter if the tank is in an explosive state, because there's nothing to trigger the explosion. Now, what's wrong with that picture? I'll tell you. By its own admission, the FAA says, 16 times the design has failed to keep an ignition from exploding a fuel tank.

So, if the goal is to keep ignition sources out of the fuel tank, and we haven't done it 16 times, that says to me that philosophy is not working. There are 230 people who have died on that airplane whose families will argue that point better than me. The solution would be, and let me say that this isn't a new solution -- it's been around since the 50s -- would be to turn the tank inert, or make it unable to sustain an explosion.

This is how they do that, because it's really very simple. They reduce the amount of oxygen in the tank. We all learned this in high school science -- no oxygen, no fire. When I named this book "Why the Experts Failed to Prevent the TWA Flight 800 Disaster," this technology is what I'm referring to. The ability to remove oxygen from fuel tanks, and make them non-explosive, has been around since the 60s. Boeing made an active decision not to put this technology in the fuel tanks of its airliners. The FAA made the decision not to force them to. The rest is history.

Question from Haley-CNN: Since writing this book and learning what you did about the jumbo jets, are you more concerned now flying on a 747?

Christine Negroni: The problem that TWA Flight 800 has exposed, once again, goes beyond the 747. It's all Boeing airliners. Secondly, the problem with aging wiring that TWA Flight 800 brought to light is more than Boeing airliners, it's ALL airliners. Swissair Flight 111 is a perfect example of that.

So, if the question is, "Do I believe air travel is safe?" the answer is, "I think air travel is safe." The point of spending millions of dollars and years of time investigating aircraft accidents is to make air travel safer. If we don't, the tragedies of a crash like TWA Flight 800 are compounded.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

Christine Negroni: In this interview, we've talked a lot about the air safety issues raised in "Deadly Departure." They are so important because the FAA, like many government agencies, responds most immediately to pressure. If we don't understand that the FAA's lack of action in the past helps to create TWA Flight 800, then we can't pressure the agency to act now.

What I hope people take away from "Deadly Departure" is more than just the air safety issues, as important as they are, but also the human stories, which are the most important stories to give relevance to why we care about airplane crashes. "Deadly Departure" talks about a whole assortment of humans. Some of them you expect to hear about and want to hear about, like Oliver Krick, who was the flight engineer, just starting his career in aviation; or Susan Hill, a passenger who was a police homicide detective in Oregon.

You read about the decidedly unsexy aviation engineers with the pocket protectors-- the scientific gumshoes who stepped out of their own lives for years to try to figure out what happened here. Read about the weirdo who showed up at the crash scene and pretended to be a military officer; or the woman reporter who went into the hotel with the families and who experienced Stockholm Syndrome, so that she lost her ability to relate to her peers and began relating and grieving with the family members; or the aide to Long Island's Congressman Michael Forbes, who sat in her office in Washington, D.C. and used the offices of a U.S. congressman, and therefore our taxpayer dollars, to run briefings for journalists who were promoting the story that a missile brought down the plane.

They're all here, and that is another part of this very complicated, but fascinating story in my book.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Christine Negroni.

Christine Negroni: It's been great. I really appreciated this.

Christine Negroni joined News Chat via telephone from the CNN bureau in New York City. CNN provided a typist for Negroni. The above is an edited transcript of the chat.



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Deadly Departure
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