File This Case Under ‘X’: Flight 800 Goes Unsolved

Jim Naples doesn’t want to talk to me at first, and I can’t blame him. But standing outside on the deck of his seaside home, he thinks it over, then summons me across his yard. I see his family inside the big house. We talk by the barbecue. Every once in a while, he motions out at Moriches Inlet and Fire Island beyond. His hand makes a sharp angle up from the water.

“We know what we saw. We weren’t drunk,” said the burly contractor. “I looked up and my immediate response was, I never saw an alert flare like that. It was projecting upward with a stream of smoke behind.”

It was twilight on July 17, 1996, and Jim Naples was out on his boat with his wife and two daughters. Hundreds of other coastal people were out on the water that night, too, and scores of them saw what Jim Naples saw in the southern sky: a white jet trail streaking up from near the horizon and arcing through the sky for many seconds, and later a fireball as big as the sun-diesel fuel exploding on Trans World Airlines Flight 800.

Now the F.B.I. has reached its conclusion in the matter. Its message to the eyewitnesses: Shut up, you didn’t see anything.

I first heard tape recordings of two unrelated witnesses who offered remarkably similar views of something streaking up and then angling horizontally that night to those made by a retired commander of the United States Navy, William Donaldson, and played at the Accuracy in Media conference in Washington last month. Then I banged around Center Moriches for a day or so and soon met six people who said they were eyewitnesses, whose accounts were similar to the ones Commander Donaldson had recorded.

“What we saw was a vapor trail, it looked like fireworks going up,” said Paul Runyan. “They say, Was it like a missile? I don’t know, I’ve never seen a missile.”

“My brother noticed it first, he said it was fireworks,” said Michelle Dorney, a teenager who was in her family’s big house on a hill overlooking the water in East Moriches. “I looked out the window, and it was a straight line going up from over the condos. It left a trail.”

“It was very white, we thought it was a flare,” said a 45-year-old Center Moriches woman who was out on the bridge of her boat in the bay just north of Fire Island. “It came up over the dunes from the east toward the west, it curved up and started to fall. It never flared up. What struck me was the whiteness of the trail; they’ve got to explain that to me before I’m happy. A second later, we saw the first fireball-like a waterfall of flame in the sky, six inches across.”

“It was like an alert flare, someone’s in trouble,” Randy Penney told me, after pressure-washing barnacles off the hull of a boat at Senix Marina. “It was bright white and seemed to be drifting down. Then later you saw the diesel fuel burning.”

Those accounts correspond with the most respectable eyewitness accounts, from pilots who were in the sky that night and saw what they identified as a white trail “like burning pyrotechnics, in level flight,” preceding the explosion, as one of them said in Aviation Week & Space Technology . Last summer, another of those pilots, Frederick C. Meyer, of the Air National Guard, told The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif., that he saw a “streak of light” for several seconds leading to what he believes was an “ordnance explosion” near the plane just before it blew up.

All these eyewitness accounts, of course, support the likelihood of a missile, which the Government has now ruled out, saying there is not a hint of evidence for it. Not a hint. Wow.

The contempt that the Government shows for common people is best demonstrated by the C.I.A.’s response to The Press-Enterprise when it asked about the eyewitnesses.

“C.I.A. analysts have determined that the eyewitness sightings thought to be that of a missile actually took place after the first of several explosions on the aircraft,” C.I.A. spokeswoman Carolyn Osborn said in September. “Our technical analysis concludes that what these eyewitnesses saw was in fact the burning [Boeing] 747 in various stages of crippled flight, not a missile.”

Is it really possible that people saw the Boeing, which was at 13,000 feet, flying up from “over the dunes,” or coming up “over the condos”? That dozens of people who say they saw a white-hot flare many seconds before a diesel explosion were wrong, that the flare was after? And who is the C.I.A. to say the witnesses claimed to see a missile when none of the ones I talked to made that explicit claim?

The Government’s treatment of the eyewitnesses has already fostered deep cynicism in the Center Moriches area.

“It would be one thing if just three or four or five people saw it,” said Anita Langdon at her boat-motor shop at the Senix Marina. “But 50 or 60 people saw it in Center Moriches, well-respected citizens, and they know what they saw.”

At Jonesy’s Hardware on Main Street, Richard Jones, the town’s unofficial mayor, inventoried stock and echoed the thought: “I’ve had too many respectable customers turn around saying what they saw. One or two, all right. But when you have a dozen or so customers, no relations, no connections, saying they saw this …”

The investigators’ arrogance toward the eyewitnesses angered Representative James Traficant Jr., Democrat of Ohio, who earlier this fall, at the behest of the chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, began investigating the possibility that the Government is shortchanging the citizens’ views.

“She [Ms. Osborn] said they were mistaken in what they saw. That’s not very professional, and it’s not the way to dispute eyewitness statements,” said Paul Marcone, press secretary to the Congressman. “Those witness statements should be part of the public record. And they [the F.B.I.] have to come up with a credible scenario of why the eyewitnesses saw what they saw.”

Representative Traficant’s hope that the witnesses will be happily reconciled with the official version, let alone treated honestly and openly, is, I think, naïve. If the government was investigating reports that the emperor was naked, it would call in designers, clothing historians and fashion editors, all well paid, all authoritative, all above reproach, to produce lengthy, detailed reports saying that ordinary people hadn’t seen what they’d seen. The media would duly report it and piss on the common man’s view.

“I don’t think our accounts will be reflected in the final version,” said Jim Naples. “I have a hard time believing that the F.B.I. believes its conclusions … I don’t believe that the truth is ever going to come out.”

The Government is simply waiting the witnesses out. As the crash drifts into ancient memory, their accounts will only survive as myth, a local belief, disputable or ridiculous as “evidence” of anything. Roswell, L.I., here we come.

And, frankly, I don’t know that this is lamentable. Ours is a conservative, sophisticated, weary age. We all now know that bad shit goes down-too many years in therapy, too much information-and who can really be bothered to open another can of worms. When a contractor friend of mine describes workers’ conditions at an upstate nuke plant, I smile and nod and forget about it.

No one feels the inclination to take any responsibility. Judge Hiller Zobel’s helplessness in the Louise Woodward matter and the F.B.I.’s indifference in the T.W.A. 800 case are expressions of the same impulse: Something happened, but we really don’t know what, so let’s move on cleanly with our busy lives. Thus the number of public investigations that have drifted on and on without any incisive conclusion, from Bruce Babbitt to Kenneth Starr’s swamp-crawl to Janet Reno’s ostrich imitation. Let Senator Fred Thompson hold all the hearings he wants just so long as he doesn’t try to make us do anything about what he finds out.

Two magazine editors recently explained the current media Zeitgeist to me over lunch: “Everything you see on the front page is good news.” It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes as national vision.

The Clinton-haters like to blame the media. That’s too easy. This is on us. Outrage was our adolescence, 20 years ago. Reform is for zealots and innocents.

Recently the novelist Frederick Barthelme (his new book is Bob the Gambler ) commented in an e-mail to me that he found he was more interested in “protection” than “investigation,” in security over adventure, and I don’t think Mr. Barthelme, a former wild man, is temperamentally alone. Who thinks they can do anything about public life?

“It’s easier for us to let the macro-life be lived on TV while we live what we’re really interested in, which is Johnny’s grades, and Isabel’s sexual awakening and watering the yard,” Mr. Barthelme wrote. “So in a way, we’re so damn wised-up that we take everything in stride. O.J. Simpson slashing folks is a TV show. Oklahoma bombing, similar. We don’t give a shit about it, and I don’t think we should, really. I mean, O.J. needed to give a shit, and Timmy [McVeigh] needs to give a shit, and the 168 or whatever families of the victims need to give a shit, but you and me, we’re rubbernecking here, aren’t we?”

The people I buttonholed in Center Moriches all seemed to wish they could be rubberneckers, taking stuff in stride-not witnesses to the crash with the witnesses’ traditional responsibility. They didn’t want to talk about what they’d seen, or were scared that they’d seen what they’d seen. Some wished they’d never seen it.

“In my opinion, we’re never going to find out what happened,” said the 45-year-old woman on the bridge. “And I don’t know that I care.”

File This Case Under ‘X’: Flight 800 Goes Unsolved