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TWA Flight 800


TWA FLIGHT 800. On 17 July 1996 Trans World Airlines flight 800, headed for Paris from John F. Kennedy airport in New York City, exploded off Long Island, killing all 212 passengers and 18 crew members, more than 150 of them American, on board the Boeing 747 jumbo jet. During the weeks following the tragedy, divers recovered 95 percent of the plane and 220 bodies from the ocean. After rebuilding the entire plane, investigators discovered that the center tank had exploded in flight.

Three primary possible explanations for the explosion emerged: a bomb, a mechanical failure, or a missile hit. The last theory, even though rejected by government investigators, attracted much media attention after the former ABC newsperson Pierre Salinger, using numerous eyewitness accounts, claimed that an Aegis guided missile from a U.S. Navy ship had mistakenly hit the plane. (One amateur photograph showed an object resembling a missile near the airplane seconds before the explosion, but U.S. military authorities claimed that no such object appeared on radar screens. Further declassification will be required before the official theory of an accidental explosion can be dismissed.) Others also advanced the theory that the plane could have been lost to a terrorist attack with one of the Stinger missiles the United States had sent to anti-Soviet guerrillas during the Afghanistan War (19801988). Should the terrorist theory be accurate, TWA flight 800 would join the World Trade Center bombing (26 February 1993), the Oklahoma City bombing (19 April 1995), and the suicide-hijacking attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center (11 September 2001) as one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

Mechanical failure was the explanation eventually favored by governmental investigators. In its final report of 2223 August 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the probable cause of the accident was an explosion of the center wing fuel tank due to the ignition of the flammable fuel-air mixture in the tank. The NTSB recommended that the flammability of the mix be reduced, the tank be isolated from heat and ignition sources, and aging aircrafts be better monitored.


Milton, Pat. In the Blink of an Eye: The FBI Investigation of TWA Flight 800. New York: Random House, 1999.

Sanders, James D. The Downing of Flight 800. New York: Zebra BooksKensington Publishing, 1997.

Philippe R. Girard

See also Air Transportation and Travel ; Disasters ; Terrorism .

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