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Red Residue
The Red Residue on seating material from Flight 800

The Red Residue of TWA Flight 800: A Brief Description and the Scientific Paper-trail

After noticing a red residue on several (rows 17-19) passenger seats within the rows in which the explosives PETN and RDX were detected (rows 15-25), lead TWA Investigator and Head Pilot Terrel Stacey brought the residue to the attention of FBI investigators. Weeks later, the FBI refused to share its laboratory results on the residue, citing evidence in a criminal investigation, prompting Stacey to remove samples of this residue, giving them to James Sanders (author/journalist) who in turn had the residue tested at West Coast Analytical Services (WCAS) in Sante Fe Springs, CA. The results[1] of this test showed high concentrations of elements used in missile fuel[2] and pyrotechnics. The publication[3] of these results in the Press Enterprise newspaper of Riverside, California received national press coverage, prompting the FBI to make a series of public statements[4-7] concerning the residue and their dissatisfaction with Stacey's and Sanders' actions.

The media attention over the WCAS results influenced the NTSB to have the residue tested independently[8] at NASA’s Materials Science Division. Based on the NASA results, Dr. Merrit Birky (Lead Investigator, Fire and Explosions Group, NTSB) stated that the residue was consistent with the contact adhesive named in [8] (report 97-IC0154) as Scotch Grip 1357 Contact Adhesive[9]. Upon further inquiry[10] however, it was found that the NTSB never tested the WCAS samples. Separate samples were lifted from the wreckage, and most surprising, no attempt was made by the NTSB to determine by chemical analysis if these samples were consistent with those removed by Captain Stacey. Furthermore, FBI chemist Steve Burmeister, has stated[11] that the red residue was not consistent with the 3M adhesive tested at NASA.

NTSB: "Supposing you come out differently,
then what are going to say?
Well, you’re not going to put the thing to bed."

In essence, the NTSB only proved that TWA used seat adhesive on its seats, not that the WCAS residue was adhesive. This fact spurred the independent testing of the 3M adhesive named in the NTSB report at Florida State University (FSU). Results[12] from these tests were inconsistent with the WCAS results and brought to the attention of NTSB Vice Chairman Francis, who forwarded them to Dr. Birky. The following excerpt is from a fax to Dr. Birky addressing this issue.

In a fax dated 8/31/98 from Thomas Stalcup, Florida State University to Dr. Merrit Birky, NTSB: "What was the purpose of Report 97-IC0154: to verify TWA's claim that adhesive is used to hold seat fabric together, or was it to counter the conclusions of James Sanders? If the latter is the case, then elemental analysis of the report's samples is necessary. Only after determining the samples tested in the above report are consistent with the residue tested by WCAS, can the NTSB assert that this same residue is consistent with adhesive."

Previous to this fax, Birky was asked a similar question:

8/27/98 phone conversation[13] (TS designates Thomas Stalcup, Florida State University, MB designates Dr. Merrit Birky, NTSB):

TS: "And I think, ah, it would have been good if you did an elemental analysis, not to prove whether it was adhesive or not, but to prove if it's the same stuff, to make sure that you and Sanders had the same stuff, therefore you say the red residue is adhesive, you mean that it's the same residue Sanders is talking about."

MB: "… to try to prove that we have the same samples as Sanders, I'm not sure it gets us very far. Supposing you come out differently, then what are going to say? Well, you’re not going to put the thing to bed."

The necessary tests to determine consistency between the NTSB and WCAS residue have yet to be performed, and whether or not they "come out differently" should be of no consequence. If the NTSB carried out appropriate tests to determine that their samples were consistent with the WCAS results, the claim that adhesive was the source of the WCAS residue would have been scientifically valid. However, the NTSB put science aside in order "to put the thing to bed," and any claim that the WCAS residue is adhesive has no scientific basis. The FSU tests exclude the 3M adhesive as a possible source of the red residue, which leaves the question of its origin an item for debate three years after the crash.

  • 1. Shelton, M. and B.M. Hovanec, Laboratory Report, . 1997, West Coast Analytical Services: Santa Fe Springs.
  • 2. Sutton, G.P., Rocket Propulsion Elements. 6th ed. 1992: John Wiley and Sons Inc.
  • 3. Hendrix, D., Solid Fuel for Rockets Follows Basic Recipe, in Press Enterprise. 1997: Riverside.
  • 4. Official, F., Communication With Newsday, . 1997, Newsday.
  • 5. Loeb, B. and J. Hall, Testimony Before Congress, . 1997.
  • 6. Kallstrom, J., FBI Press Conference, . 1997, FBI: Washington, D.C.
  • 7. FBI, Criminal Complaint Against James and Elizabeth Sanders, . 1997: New York
  • 8. Bassett, C., Report 97-1C0154, . 1997, NASA: Kennedy Space Center.
  • 9. Birky, M., Fire and Explosion Group Factual Report, . 1997, NTSB.
  • 10. Stalcup, T., April '98 Phone Conversation with Merrit Birky (NTSB), . 1998.
  • 11. Burmeister, S., Private Communication, . 1998.
  • 12. Salters, V., ICP Mass Spectroscopy, . 1998, Florida State University: Tallahassee.
  • 13. Stalcup, T., August '98 Phone Conversation with Merrit Birky (NTSB), . 1998.