TWA's symbolic finale Hearing: Relatives of TWA crash victims find little new in the data, but that isn't the point.


The digital clock on the edge of the screen marches past 8: 31, and the tiny animated jet keeps streaking across the sky. No one in the big, drafty convention hall needs to ask who is on board, nor what happens next.

A flame spurts from the mid-section. The plane breaks apart, with the nose cone falling away. The rest -- tail, wings, engines, and all those people inside -- swerves into a long, agonizing spiral to the ocean, and everybody dies.

Then the screen shuts off, the ceiling lights come up, and on goes the hearing, presided over by a semicircle of men in suits. They speak in monotones of "debris fields," "parabolic curves" and "the center tank scavenge pump," the chilly language of a mechanical postmortem.

Then again, that's what everyone has come to see.

Such was the scene yesterday at the Baltimore Convention Center, where the National Transportation Safety Board began its five-day investigative hearing into the July 17, 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800.

The hearing has been billed as short on revelations, because just about everything known about the crash has already been told. The investigation also lacks a definitive conclusion. No one can say for sure what caused the center fuel tank to explode, although investigators have ruled out the possibility of a bomb or a missile.

But in the series of events held so far for the families of those who died on board, this week marks the symbolic finale. That's why some have vowed to witness every minute, even if they have become weary with the language of grieving and consolation.

"We stay on it and follow it every day of our lives," explained Judy Teller of Springfield, Ill., whose sister and two nieces died in the crash.

"But I hope this hearing helps everybody have some " She then paused, searching for the right word. "Not 'closure,' I hate that word. We all hate that word. I hope it helps everybody find some way to come to terms with this."

Safety board officials acknowledge that they've never had a hearing quite like this one -- with so many media people and such a large room to accommodate it.

They also held an unprecedented event earlier in the investigation, allowing the families to go inside a giant hangar to view the re-assembled wreckage of the plane.

Collective grief

One reason is the ever-growing media culture for collective displays of grief, whether at the funeral of a princess or a gathering of survivors in the wake of disaster.

Another reason is the persistence of conspiracy theories still swirling on radio talk shows and the Internet, such as the one about an errant Navy missile that supposedly struck the plane.

Unscripted drama

Hillel Cohen, representing a publication called Worker's World, showed up early yesterday to make sure that no one would leave without being reminded yet again, and in doing so he provided the day's only item of unscripted drama, however brief.

"Truth needs an independent investigation," he shouted shortly before NTSB Chairman James E. Hall opened the hearing. "Why can't people know the truth?"

With his goatee, tortoise-shell glasses and black leather jacket, Cohen, 48, resembled Mad magazine's idea of a bomb-throwing anarchist.

He held aloft a hand-lettered poster-sized sign that said, "A Navy Missile? Only an INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION can find the truth," before security guards escorted him from the hall.

After a phalanx of reporters and TV camera people followed him out the door, he resumed his performance in the lobby.

Some family members agree

Some among the families are ready to believe Cohen's message, such as Francis Escobar of Columbia, who lost five relatives in the crash. "I mean, if that's what you wanted to do, wouldn't this be very easy to cover up?" Escobar asked.

Teller isn't buying it, if only because she finds the thought almost too unbearable to contemplate.

"I think that the FBI has laid that to rest," she said. "The loss that we experienced would only be made worse if our government was trying to fool us."

No room for shock

So, most of the families came ready to be convinced by the government's presentation, and by now most have seen the various videos and photographs so often that there is no longer room for shock, such as when a picture of three passenger seats on the ocean floor pops onto the viewing screens at the front of the room.

Nonetheless, Hall was careful to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain.

Before the first video was shown yesterday, he ordered a short halt to the proceedings, just long enough to say, "I will pause before each video in case family members should choose to exit the room."

No one did.

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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