The third anniversary of the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 is July 17, so it’s a good time to look into what even the Government reluctantly concedes is a mystery about the crash: “the 30-knot track.” The 30-knot track is the radar trail of a boat that was the closest vessel to the 747 when it exploded and that then headed out to sea on a beeline from right under the burning wreckage.
“That boat is extremely suspect,” said William S. Donaldson, a retired Navy commander who supports the missile theory of the plane’s destruction. “He not only doesn’t turn to render assistance, he runs.”
“It’s like the getaway car,” said Graeme Sephton, an electrical engineer who is active in an Internet researchers organization that is highly critical of the Federal investigation.
The Government doesn’t think the unidentified boat is such a big deal. “It does not intrigue me,” said Peter Goelz, the National Transportation Safety Board managing director. F.B.I. spokesman Joseph Valiquette added, “In an ideal world, it would be nice to know everything, but I don’t think the F.B.I. or the N.T.S.B. claims to know everything that happened in the crash.”
This is a convenient position for the F.B.I. to adopt now. The most unsettling thing about the 30-knot track is that the F.B.I. essentially suppressed knowledge of it when the crash was foremost on the public agenda. Two years ago, the F.B.I. closed its criminal investigation into the crash, and James Kallstrom, then the lead F.B.I. investigator, testified before Congress that the agency’s “exhaustive” efforts had included “tracking of all air and waterborne vessels in the area at the time of the explosion followed by appropriate interviews.”
Mr. Kallstrom later held a lengthy press conference saying that agents had “left no stone unturned.” He went into great detail about suspicious boats.
“Who is there in the water? Who could be escaping in any direction?” he said. “We identified 371 vessels in the Long Island area and did investigation on those vessels. For the one-month period, we identified 20,000 records of vessels that entered New York Harbor and did an investigation of those vessels.” The F.B.I. even seized some boats to inspect the flooring for burns characteristic of backfire from a shoulder-fired rocket.
Mr. Kallstrom’s press conference was aimed at discrediting the missile theory, and it worked. In an editorial titled “Conspiracy Inoculation,” The New York Times congratulated him for an “extraordinary” performance. The F.B.I. had shared its “voluminous evidence” with “admirable thoroughness and openness.”
The closing of the criminal investigation allowed the N.T.S.B. to hold hearings on the crash, one month later, where it offered hundreds of exhibits, a few of which depicted a “30-knot track” 10 miles out in the Atlantic. Radar data collected during the last minute of the T.W.A. flight revealed the two closest objects to the plane, both between three and four miles away, as a Navy P-3 airplane and what the exhibit called simply a “30-knot target.” Radar data for the next 20 minutes showed the mystery boat heading on a beeline out to sea, on a south-southwest course, even as other boats rushed to the crash to try to help out. It was nearly 9 o’clock at night, not the usual time for an excursion.
“I looked at that and said, ‘Wow, what is that guy doing leaving the scene?'” Commander Donaldson said. “And of course I assumed he was identified.”
Commander Donaldson called Steve Bongardt, an F.B.I. agent and fellow Navy veteran who was active in the investigation. “It was a pilot-to-pilot exchange,” Commander Donaldson said. “I said, I want you to tell me if you have a 302 [interview] form for every single boat out there. He said, ‘I can’t answer that question without higher authority.’ I said, ‘Steve, you have answered the question.'”
Commander Donaldson was then working closely with Representative James Traficant Jr., Democrat of Ohio, who was looking into the investigation for the House Aviation Subcommittee, and at the commander’s prompting, Mr. Traficant sent a list of questions to the F.B.I. One asked if the F.B.I. has “been able to positively identify every single aircraft and surface vessel that was in the proximity of T.W.A. Flight 800 at the time of the accident.”
It took more than three months, but in July 1998 an acting assistant director answered the Representative: No. Lewis Schiliro acknowledged the presence of the mystery boat, which he said was at least 25 to 30 feet long and reached speeds of 35 knots, close to 40 miles per hour. “Despite extensive efforts, the F.B.I. has been unable to identify this vessel,” he said.
The response is somewhat alarming given the F.B.I.’s assurances that it had turned over every stone-and given the fact that many eyewitnesses on Long Island said they had seen a flarelike object streak up from the horizon before the explosion in the air. Yet the speeding mystery boat goes unmentioned in the mainstream press.
I first learned about it in a scientific report on “anomalies” in the Government investigation that has been widely circulated on the Net. “I show this data to physicists and their jaws drop,” said the report’s author, Thomas Stalcup, a graduate student in physics at Florida State University who heads an Internet group of 40 people with a technical background, called Flight 800 Independent Researchers’ Organization, or F.I.R.O.
Mr. Sephton, a F.I.R.O. member, said, “It’s really weird that there are no eyewitnesses reporting from that vessel. These are the people who are pulling out from under the flaming debris, and none of them calls the 800 number that is set up by the F.B.I.”
The N.T.S.B.’s Mr. Goelz disputes the suggestion that the boat was fleeing.
“It’s perfectly reasonable to assume, because they were on a direct course and the explosion didn’t occur in front of them, that they didn’t see it,” he said. Given the boat’s speed, those on board may have heard nothing over the engine noise.
“They would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to have seen something,” Mr. Sephton said. Commander Donaldson pointed out that the explosion was “a huge physical event” that filled the night sky behind the boat with a curtain of burning fuel. “It would be like having the sun come up at midnight right behind you,” he said. “You would feel heat on the back of your neck. And you’re going to feel the concussion. The explosion rattled windows on the beach 10 miles away.”
It would seem that even the F.B.I. secretly regarded the 30-knot track as suspicious. For six months, the Government conducted a $5.5 million trawling operation of the waters surrounding the crash, using scallop boats. Commander Donaldson has obtained documents left by the F.B.I. on one scalloper, showing that the F.B.I. was specifically looking for shoulder-fired Stinger missile parts-notably a Stinger ejector motor-in what the F.B.I. called a “possible missile launch zone” 2.7 miles from the crash. That circle included the mystery boat.
“If it’s a legitimate criminal investigation, with a possibility of 230 homicides, how do you close the investigation when you haven’t identified the boat that was within missile firing range?” said Commander Donaldson, who investigated a dozen crashes in the Navy. “To me that’s egregious. I don’t see how you justify it.”
An aide to Representative Traficant said the F.B.I. and N.T.S.B. should have been more open about the mystery boat. Paul Marcone said, “Kallstrom should have come out and said, Here are some things we haven’t been able to explain.”
Now an executive with the banking company MBNA, Mr. Kallstrom said he had no intention of misleading anyone at his press conference. “I wish I knew who it was,” he said of the 30-knot track. But there are always loose ends in any investigation, and mentioning them is not helpful: “If you say you’re 99.9 percent sure, people think you’re opening the door, or that you’re playing games.”
Representative Traficant’s report concluded there was no Government cover-up. Such a conspiracy would have required hundreds of participants, Mr. Marcone reasons. He interviewed 40 or 50 investigators and they all struck him as sincere. If there had been a cover-up, he added, “Why would the F.B.I. admit to a U.S. Congressman that they couldn’t identify the 30-knot track?”
Commander Donaldson said a cover-up wouldn’t require those numbers. Tasks in the Flight 800 investigation were parceled out amid an air of state secrecy, with pre-emptive suggestions from on high that the Government had found no evidence of a missile. In this climate, individual teams’ reports could be honest and insufficient, because technicians were not in a position to put what they had seen together with other evidence.
For instance, the N.T.S.B. held public hearings on the crash, but refused to allow eyewitnesses to testify about what they’d seen. Meantime, the F.B.I. presented a C.I.A. animation of the plane’s breakup that purported to explain what the eyewitnesses had seen, and merely infuriated them.
It’s not hard to imagine ways this investigation could have become politicized. The Atlanta Olympics were to start days after the crash. A leading terrorist was then on trial in New York. There were threats; three weeks before, an apartment complex in Saudi Arabia had been bombed, killing 19 American servicemen. And it was election year for an administration that has shown it will do just about anything to win. What if voters saw the country as being vulnerable to terrorists?
The N.T.S.B. likes to point out that Commander Donaldson is a right-winger, funded by Accuracy in Media. Yes, and Mr. Stalcup and Mr. Sephton are lefties. They have lately obtained more radar data which they say challenges the Government findings.
The real distinction here is between the old hierarchical information order and the new one. For some time now, the mainstream media has been able to write off Internet investigators as ill-trained, people who are unable to sort out rumor from fact, and, when they do have facts, have no sense of their proportion. This criticism has often been true, but the Internet gets less hysterical one month to the next, and meantime the mainstream media have found themselves in an odd position. They are corporate authorities, who tend to accept the word of other authorities at face value. They don’t seem to see the revolution at the door: The Internet is a growing society of people who are comfortable challenging authority.
“You’re focusing on minutiae,” the N.T.S.B.’s Mr. Goelz said to me. “Ninety-five percent of the wreckage of the plane has been recovered and it shows no missile.”
“Let’s see,” Commander Donaldson said, getting out a calculator. “Five percent of the wreckage is 8 tons. You can put a lot of holes in that much stuff. It’s like saying the Empire State Building fell over and we’ve found all but five floors.”