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New Film Argues That Flight 800 Crash in 1996 Was Caused by a Missile

On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 was bound for Paris from New York’s JFK airport but went down minutes after takeoff. There were no survivors among the 230 passengers and crew. The investigation took four years to come to a conclusion and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the tragedy was caused by, most likely, “a center fuel tank explosion, probably caused by a spark from a short-circuit in the wiring” (NBC News). Now the same doubts raised in 1996 have resurfaced on the eve of the release of a new film about the crash.

Some investigators at the time argued that a surface-to-air missile may have been the cause. Many of these voices have the chance to explain their perspective in the documentary film and the Air Line Pilots Association, among other groups and individuals, recently petitioned the NTSB to reopen the investigation. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen but Jim Speer, spokesman for the Pilots Association says that, after a reexamination of the evidence, “we have a lot more confidence that it was a missile.”

The missile theory was quickly discredited at the time of the crash but it was never fully eliminated as a possibility. Definitive proof explaining the cause of the crash was never found and the NTSB may consider the petition. Though the NTSB infrequently reinvestigates cases, they released a statement in response to the latest efforts to reopen the case: “As required by NTSB regulation, a petition for reconsideration of Board findings or a probable cause determination must be based on the discovery of new evidence or on a showing that the Board’s findings are erroneous. The NTSB will review the details of the petition to determine if it meets the requirements set forth in the regulation.” They close the statement by saying the Flight 800 case was one of their most exhaustive and they imply that they are confident with their original findings.

However, the film, which opens on July 17, 2013, makes the case that the theory about ” a shoulder-fired missile launched by terrorists in a small boat has never completely gone away” (NTSB) and that it should be considered a real possibility. More than 200 eyewitnesses of the attack claim to have seen a white light heading for the plane before it crashed.

But some of the people who have the most at stake believe that the documentary, the request for a continued investigation and all the renewed media attention about Flight 800 is doing more harm than good. A spokesman for families who lost loved ones in the crash, John Seaman, whose niece was killed on the flight, told the Associated Press that he and others wish the renewed interest would simply stop. He said these kinds of efforts “reopen wounds,” and “I can’t keep going over it again and again. I think most families feel that way.”

This makes this situation extremely challenging. While the rights of people who have lost loved ones in an aviation crash must have their wishes respected, knowing the truth about an air line crash is a benefit to everyone who counts on airplane safety. While the missile explanation may be another conspiracy theory without a firm foundation, and the documentary film may be seen by some as insensitive and exploitive, the issue cannot simply be ignored especially in an era when new technology exists for determining the cause of plane crashes. The TWA 800 petitioners claim that new technology allows them to study the plane’s radar and more clearly identify the cause of the crash. If new evidence has come to light, it would be irresponsible not to investigate it.