SOMETIME EARLY next year will come the last official word on what caused the crash of TWA Flight 800, which set out for Paris on July 17, 1996, and exploded in a fireball over Long Island Sound, sending all 230 passengers and crew members to a watery grave.
The National Transportation Safety Board is expected by March to issue its final report on the crash of the Boeing 747 and will point to an electrical failure, which ignited vapors in a center wing tank, said a top NTSB official, who requested anonymity.
The tank's explosion ripped off the front of the plane, which climbed several thousand feet before it began its perilous descent into the water, said investigators.
But retired Navy Cmdr. William S. Donaldson III, 55, a combat pilot during the Vietnam War who investigated a dozen Navy crashes during his 25-year career, points to another cause: a shoulder-fired missile from a terrorist aboard a speedboat some three miles away.
Thomas Stalcup, 29, a doctoral candidate in physics at Florida State University, has another explanation, backed by dozens of other amateur TWA 800 sleuths: A military "special operations" exercise supported by a "fleet" of fast-moving ships off Long Island Sound accidentally fired a missile that brought down the plane.
Neither man has concrete evidence to support his theory. They blend portions of evidence, from radar blips to bomb residue. They argue that the government's conclusions of a vapor explosion and a rising, crippled aircraft are impossible. And from eyewitness accounts, they conclude, on their Web sites and in media conferences, that a missile can be the only reason for the crash.
When they ponder the government's explanation, they see incompetence and cover-up. They dismiss an investigation that has cost $40 million and included the FBI, the NTSB, the CIA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire-arms and scientists from government labs and private universities.
"They're both wrong," said former FBI assistant director James Kallstrom, who led the criminal investigation into the TWA 800 crash, referring to Donaldson and Stalcup.
"They have seen none of the evidence," said an exasperated Kallstrom, who has left the agency for private industry. " ... There's no forensic evidence of anything hitting the plane."
Kallstrom said investigators first thought a bomb or missile destroyed the aircraft, given eyewitness accounts of a streak of light across the sky. " ... We took the eyewitness accounts very seriously," he said. "I put 500 agents on it as if it were a missile."
But tests of the plane's wreckage, more than 95 percent of which was recovered, pointed not to a bomb or missile but to an internal explosion in the huge center wing fuel tank.
A December 1997 report by the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division in China Lakes, Calif., said there was "no evidence" of a missile strike, noting that the wreckage bore none of the telltale signs, such as high-velocity penetration or soot residue. What the witnesses saw, investigators realized, was not a missile rising to meet the plane but the plane breaking up in the sky.
But Donaldson and Stalcup say many of the more than 100 witnesses, including veterans who had experience with missiles and gunnery fire, clearly saw a rising streak of light that would indicate some type of ordnance.
Donaldson, who left the Navy in 1991 and owns a farm in St. Mary's County, has been obsessed with the crash since April 1997, when he read a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by NTSB Chairman James Hall that discounted the missile theory and pointed to a spontaneous explosion in the center wing tank. "I knew the fuel couldn't do what he said it did," said Donaldson.
Since then, Donaldson has created the Associated Retired Aviation Professionals to look into the crash, peppered government officials with questions, prodded lawmakers to mount a new investigation and crafted his own fuel experiments.
It's impossible for the plane's fuel to create an explosion, Donaldson says, noting that it is difficult to light and would have quickly burned out in the tank because of a lack of oxygen. In millions of takeoffs, he said, the accident described by investigators has never happened.
"He's simply wrong," said a top NTSB official who asked that he not be named. The official said a similar explosion took place aboard a Philippine Air Lines Boeing 737 and killed eight people on May 11, 1990, at Manila International Airport.
Despite investigators' findings that a faulty switch and damaged wires probably ignited the fuel-air mixture in the tank, Donaldson sticks to his theory that a terrorist, not a fuel tank mishap, brought down the aircraft.
One of the eyewitnesses saw an arcing light resembling a military "tracer round" at almost precisely the location of a speedboat captured by airport radar at about three miles from the crash scene and traveling at 30 knots. Donaldson says this corresponds with a Cigarette boat that two fishermen saw leaving Long Island's Moriches Inlet about 20 minutes before the plane exploded. The fishermen noticed the boat's operator idle, peer around and then race out into Long Island Sound. They reported what they saw to the FBI, Donaldson says.
The terrorist-attack theorists point out that President Clinton signed into law tough sanctions against Iran months before the TWA 800 explosion. Representatives of nine terrorist organizations were called to Tehran during the first week of June. That month, the U.S. Air Force's Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia were attacked with a truck bomb that killed 19 airmen.
Three weeks later, TWA 800 exploded over Long Island, an act Donaldson calls "one in a long series of murderous attacks on U.S. interests fomented by the Iranian revolution ..."
Shortly after the accident, The Times of London carried a story that named an Iranian-sponsored terrorist group as responsible, quoting senior Iranian officials who took credit for the crash.
Donaldson goes on to charge that the FBI embarked on a "covert" search for Stinger missile parts, pointing to a Bureau search manual inadvertently left on a boat that contained diagrams of Stinger tubes and batteries. He also claims that the FBI chose to "conceal" from investigators and Congress evidence of shoulder-fired missile components discovered by the scallop boat Alpha Omega.
Kallstrom said he was unaware that the scallop boat crew supposedly found missile parts but acknowledged that the FBI was searching for Stinger components.
Asked why the U.S. government would conceal a terrorist attack, Donaldson has a ready answer: The Clinton administration was caught flat-footed by the terrorist moves and the smuggling of Stinger missiles, and it took no precautions that could have prevented aircraft attacks.
If all this came to light, Donaldson argues, it could have hurt Clinton's chances for re-election in 1996.
But Paul Marcone, chief of staff to Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., an Ohio Democrat who pressed FBI and NTSB officials last year with questions supplied by Donaldson, scoffs at such reasoning. "It's ludicrous. Why would they want to cover that up?" asks Marcone, adding that Clinton could have gained political currency by making the attack public and then bombing terrorist locations.
While Donaldson clings to his terrorist theory for the crash of TWA 800, he dismisses as "baloney" a claim that the U.S. military accidentally shot down the jet.
That's the view of the Flight 800 Independent Research Organization, a collection of some 50 enthusiasts, said Stalcup, who helped form the group earlier this year.
"It was the eyewitnesses that got me into it," he said, recalling an FBI media conference in November 1997 that dismissed the missile theory and said the eyewitnesses saw not a streak rise from the ocean but the breakup of the plane in the sky.
One of those eyewitnesses is Frederick C. Meyer, an Air National Guard Blackhawk helicopter pilot from Long Island, who spotted a streak of light the night of the crash as he was landing about 10 miles away at Gabreski Airport.
"I saw a streak of light crossing the sky from my right to my left. A second or two later, I observed the first explosion," said Meyer, a Vietnam veteran who witnessed missile flights in the service. "I believe what I saw was a long-range missile."
"The best explanation I've heard to date is that it could've been a missile," said Stalcup, who notes that traces of bomb ingredients were found on the plane. Investigators said the traces came from a police exercise in St. Louis several weeks earlier involving bomb-sniffing dogs.
Like others in his group, Stalcup points to radar evidence that shows "a fleet of ships," some 30 boats, heading at high speed toward a military restricted area not far from the crash area that night. "I've been told by someone the speed can only be military," said Stalcup, declining to provide his source but saying it came from a former military radar operator.
A Navy spokesman said no ships were operating within a 40-nautical-mile radius of the crash site.
The Aegis missile cruiser USS Normandy was about 180 miles south of the crash site, though it was not conducting tests. It had no missiles with a range to reach the crash area, said the Navy.
Donaldson holds out hope for a larger congressional probe and additional testing that might point to a missile. In their report, officials at the Navy's China Lake facility said shooting a shoulder-fired missile at a 747's fuel tanks would settle "finally and conclusively" the lingering questions about a supposed missile attack.
But Kallstrom said scientists agreed such tests would not have made "a material difference" in his criminal probe. "There comes a time when you have to end an investigation," he said, noting that he suggested to NTSB officials they pursue any necessary testing. NTSB officials, however, said it was not their role to conduct testing for possible criminal activity.
Tom Bowman is a reporter in The Sun's Washington bureau.