The Flight 800 investigation TWA crash hearings: Event in Baltimore is helping change theory on fuel tank design.


IMMEDIATELY AFTER TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island en route to Paris in July 1996, there were suggestions that terrorism, an initial suspect, might ultimately prove a less disturbing cause than something involving the engineering of the aircraft itself.

That statement rings a little more true now that investigators have homed in on a possible flaw in fuel tank design. The findings were revealed in hearings being conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board this week in Baltimore.

The fuel tank information was at once dramatic and disturbing. One specialist said the energy produced by dropping a dime half an inch would generate 10 times the amount needed to produce a spark potent enough to blow up a tank as hot as the one that erupted on TWA Flight 800.

The temperature of the empty center tank is believed to have risen to 140 degrees on the ground, while the jet idled for hours awaiting takeoff, before cooling to 120 degrees as the plane rose into the sky. The risk of explosion is 100,000 times greater at 140 degrees than at 86 degrees, a scientist testified.

Whether this testimony unlocks the 17-month mystery, it is already shifting decades-old theory about airplane fuel tanks. Boeing, which manufactured the 747, previously operated under the premise that eliminating the possibility that a spark could breach a fuel tank would prevent explosions.

The company now recognizes that the environment inside the tank must not be conducive to combustion. In more mundane terms, it is a principle Harry and Harriet Homeowner have been reminded of for years: Never store rags with flammables, or create conditions that feed a flame.

The hearing at the Baltimore Convention Center, described as unprecedented, has attracted national media and scores of relatives of the 230 victims of the crash. Whether the presentation helps the NTSB close this case -- now one of only five unsolved airline crashes of 355 the board has reviewed since its creation 30 years ago -- it has already served two vital ends.

The public event has helped erode some of the cynicism that had heated up, like vapors in a tank, during the long course of the government's $50 million investigation.

But the hearing has also been valuable psychologically, offering to families and the general public more reason for confidence that a resolution is being vigorously pursued.

The hearing has brought attention to its host city, while it has also brought comfort to a place in the mind that was mentioned often during last year's Oklahoma City bombing trial -- the place where "closure" rests.

Pub Date: 12/11/97

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