The National Transportation Safety Board's largest public hearing ever opens tomorrow in Baltimore, promising a detailed look into what may have caused Paris-bound TWA Flight 800 to explode off Long Island in July 1996, killing all 230 aboard.
After scrutinizing more than 1 million pieces of wreckage, conducting 7,000 interviews and spending nearly $50 million, federal investigators believe that something -- faulty wiring, static electricity -- ignited vapors in the nearly empty center fuel tank.
The exact cause, however, may never be known.
For air travelers worldwide, the session at the recently expanded Baltimore Convention Center will highlight some disturbing issues about aging aircraft such as the 26-year-old Boeing 747-100 used on Flight 800. For families of the victims, it may offer some closure, if not a villain.
"Everything is the same, but I have to be there," said Ann Craven, the mother of Paula Craven, a flight attendant who died in the crash while vacationing with her 9-year-old son, Jay.
"We have to know everything about what happened," the Bel Air resident.
Only five of the 355 airline crashes since 1967, when the NTSB was established, remain unsolved.
The public has been riveted on the TWA 800 probe, which initially delved into into the possibility that the crash was caused by a terrorist act, even a missile attack. But as the investigation dragged on, it also led to suspicions that the government was hiding something.
"I've never seen an investigation with the drama that it's had for the American people and for the people of the world," said Michael Barr, director of the aviation safety program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
"The hearing will be the type that has never been seen before," he said.
Indeed, the scope is extraordinary -- with at least 800 people, including 100 family members, dozens of lawyers, expert witnesses and representatives of TWA and Boeing, expected to fill a 30,000-square-foot room. Two 12-by-16-foot video screens will show the proceedings, and a pair of risers on either side of the hall will give spectators a better view.
Nearly 500 reporters and news media technicians from around the world -- including every major network -- will cover the event. Dozens of satellite television trucks will be stationed in the convention center parking lot. "It's going to be a major media thing," said Peggy Daidakis, executive director of the convention center. "The lobby will be turned into a television studio every night."
So overwhelming were the logistics that the NTSB summoned help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which normally handles natural disasters.
"It's certainly the biggest hearing we've ever done," said Ted Lopatkiewicz, spokesman for the NTSB, which has spent more than half its annual budget on the TWA Flight 800 investigation.
Baltimore was chosen, he said, because of the size of its convention center, the availability of hotel rooms and its central location in the mid-Atlantic region. While city officials have not calculated the dollar benefits, the economic spinoff for hotels and restaurants will be substantial.
Today, the NTSB will issue the investigative docket, more than 4,000 pages of largely technical data gathered by the agency and private research laboratories throughout the world. Starting tomorrow, panels of investigators will face questions from NTSB technical experts and the board of inquiry headed by NTSB Chairman James Hall.
About 375 divers recovered 96 percent of the wreckage from the ocean floor -- at a cost of $6 million -- and the 747's hulk was reassembled in a hangar in New York.
Investigators then examined more than 1,400 places where the plane was torn and 259 areas of missing fuselage, and they took more than 2,000 chemical samples. They shot missile warheads at scrapped jumbo jets; they attached tiny bombs favored by international terrorists to a wrecked 747's fuel tank and detonated the charges.
In November, the FBI concluded that the explosion was not a criminal act, but last week, it insisted that the NTSB eliminate any discussion of the accounts by 244 witnesses or the explosive residue found on the planes' seats -- for fear such information could hinder any future criminal probe. At the FBI's request, the safety board also scrapped plans to screen the Central Intelligence Agency's video re-creation of the crash.
The hearing will concentrate almost exclusively on the possibility of a devastating mechanical failure. While declining to elaborate, NTSB Chairman Hall said last week that he hopes to "move the ball significantly" with new evidence and ultimately establish at least a "probable" cause.
Many aviation safety experts, however, are skeptical.
"After all this time, there probably won't be anything too new," said David Stempler, president of Air Travelers Advisers, a Washington, D.C., consultant that publishes an aviation safety report. "Maybe the hearing is just politically correct. Maybe it's for the families.
"There's a litigation component but also an emotional component to pinpoint the wrongdoing," he said. "When it's so amorphous, they can't say who did this to their loved ones."
Hundreds of family members have filed lawsuits against TWA and Boeing, who contend that there is no concrete evidence of a mechanical failure. Family members, including several from France, are being reunited this week for the first time since they gathered in July for an anniversary memorial service at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.
The lack of information and alleged shabby treatment by the airlines during recent crashes have caused families of air crash victims to become better organized and politicized. Congress enacted a law giving the NTSB authority to provide families assistance and keep them informed about investigations.
"In the old days, the airline had the responsibility to deal with the family," said Lopatkiewicz, the NTSB spokesman. "That just wasn't working."
Private briefing for families
Yet, despite a wealth of information about the TWA crash -- family members are to get a private briefing today -- family members may never know what really happened.
"I think the evidence disappeared with the explosion," said Barr, the aviation safety program director. "I don't think they'll ever know what caused it."
Despite the rarity of such airline disasters, the crash has raised unsettling questions about the safety of older aircraft.
"The old rule of thumb was aircraft become inefficient before they became inoperative and if you constantly maintained them, you could run them forever," Stempler said.
"Now, we're not feeling so certain about that," he said.
Investigators theorize that an electrical spark may have ignited fumes on the nearly empty room-size central fuel tank. Among other things, they have focused on the fuel measuring system and seven tube-like probes inside the Boeing 747's center fuel tank.
The probes are connected by low-voltage wires to cockpit gauges, but the wires are tightly bundled in places with high-voltage wires.
Investigators have speculated that high voltage could have leaked onto a low-voltage wire through cracked insulation or by a magnetic transfer, reaching the fuel probe in the volatile fuel tank and triggering the explosion.
It is but one theory that underscores the vulnerability of older airplane equipment.
"We're coming to realize that even with big overhauls, they're not replacing wiring, hydraulic lines," Stempler said. "If these wires are becoming a source of vulnerability, maybe these old aircraft shouldn't run so long."
Manufactured in 1971, the plane used for TWA Flight 800 was one of the earliest 747s, one of 205 in the 100 series. "The vast majority are still in use," said Tim Neale, a spokesman for Boeing in Arlington, Va.
Early in the investigation, Boeing urged airlines to begin an inspection program on the 747's center fuel tank.
The Federal Aviation Administration has told airlines to do more to avoid possible electrical surges in wiring near the tanks of some Boeing 747 aircraft. Yet with its many pumps and complicated network of wires, the center fuel tank contains several sources for a spark.
While stopping short of ordering costly retrofitting, the FAA has proposed adding new safety equipment that would flush dangerous vapors from fuel tanks and insulate them from heat sources. Last week, it appointed an industry and consumer advisory panel to report in six months on solutions.
"You either don't do anything and wait till the next accident and see if you can pinpoint the problem," Barr said.
"Or the alternative is to do what they're doing with the 737 and change everything," he said, referring to federally mandated changes in the Boeing 737 rudder system.
Two unsolved 737 crashes since 1991 -- including the crash in September 1994 of USAir Flight 427 outside Pittsburgh -- were jTC believed to have been caused by rudder malfunctions.
"Ultimately," Barr says, "the flying passenger will bear the cost."
Investigators also have focused on what can be done to minimize the potential for a dangerous buildup of vapors in empty center fuel tanks.
While fuel is not explosive, vapors that accumulate in the living room-sized tank of the 747 are highly volatile.
But the airline industry insists that some NTSB suggestions, especially one that limits vapors by inserting nitrogen into the tank's vacant space, could be extremely expensive.
Another potential recommendation -- that airliners carry more fuel than they actually need for some trips -- is at odds with basic airline economics.
A flight from New York to Paris is a relatively short one for a Boeing 747, requiring no more fuel than what can be stored in the wings.
"If you carry excess fuel, you're burning fuel to carry fuel and you can carry less cargo and other revenue producers," Stempler said.
After losing billions during the early 1990s, once again profitable airlines will be fiercely resistant to costly changes that may, or may not, be necessary.
"We definitely haven't discounted anything," Neale said. "But before you start making any kind of major design changes to a system that has operated well for many years, you have to be careful you don't introduce something else you didn't think about initially."
With a final report on TWA Flight 800 not expected until late next year, investigators still have months of work ahead of them. In the end, the challenge is to make sure that whatever happened to TWA Flight 800 never happens again.
But with no real culprit, the question becomes just how far regulators can go to prevent another tragedy like it.
Pub Date: 12/07/97