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TWA Submission to NTSB: The eyewitness portion

1.18.3 Eyewitness Statements

Early attempts by the Boardís Witness Group to assemble, review and analyze eyewitness accounts of the accident were entirely pre-empted by the FBIís criminal investigation. The Boardís initial Witness Group disbanded after it became apparent that the FBI would not cede authority to the NTSB to conduct interviews of eyewitnesses to the accident. Further, the Groupís preliminary, draft report, as well as all other eyewitness data, were purposefully omitted from the Boardís discussion and presentation at the December 1997 public hearing, at the insistence of the FBI.

After the FBI announced it was suspending its criminal investigation into the accident during a November 1997 press conference, the NTSB reconvened the work of the Witness Group. Subject to few exceptions (noted below) the NTSB investigation and analysis of eyewitness accounts of the explosion and breakup of the Flight 800 aircraft was based entirely on accounts of such witness as were recorded by hundreds of FBI agents who conducted such witness interviews.

Between February and April 1998 a total of 755 witness statements had been turned over to the NTSB Witness Group by the FBI; the Group determined that these accounts represented the statements of 736 different witnesses, of whom 105 were interviewed more than once. The quality of the reports of witness observations was so poor that the Group could not determine the credibility of the witnessís account nor the context of the statement, i.e., if a witness saw the complete sequence of events. Names, addresses and other identifying information had been redacted from the statements by the FBI. The statements varied greatly in the level of detail and were generally geared towards the FBIís investigation of evidence of a bomb or missile. The severe limitations in the methodology evident in this body of data is more fully documented in the Witness Group Chairmanís Factual Report (dated February 9, 2000).

The Group identified 258 witnesses who saw a streak of light, frequently described as a flare or fireworks, traveling in various directions. Of these witness accounts, 210 contain descriptions of a ball of fire. While most of the streak of light accounts are consistent with the calculated flight path of the aircraft, the Group identified 38 accounts from eyewitnesses positioned in diverse locations along the south shore of Long Island that described a streak of light that rose vertically or near vertically. These 38 accounts of a streak of light are inconsistent with the flight path of the accident aircraft, its break-up, and fall into the ocean.

The significant findings of the Group Report do not refute nor support any explanation or theory of events with respect to the probable cause of the explosion.

The notable exception to FBI generated accounts of eyewitness reports consists of statements of certain airborne witnesses taken by NTSB and by the Witness Group, as a whole. Most airborne witnesses were pilots and hence experienced observers of aircraft whose statements were particularly reliable. The captain of Eastwind flight 507 was in a good position to view the accident aircraft prior to the explosion. He related observing the accident aircraft for several minutes in normal flight, with what appeared to be its landing lights on, whereafter the aircraft exploded in a huge orange ball and evidenced no climb above its pre-explosion altitude. These observations did not comport with the trajectory of the aircraft in its final stages of flight and structural breakup, as depicted in the CIA videotape entitled "TWA Flight 800: What Did the Witnesses See".


2.0 Analysis

2.1 Investigative Techniques While publicly the NTSB and FBI claimed to work closely together in an effort to find the cause of the accident, it became readily apparent that the lack of coordination between the two agencies had serious implications in the quality of the investigative product.

2.1.1 The taking of eyewitness statements by a disjointed corps of FBI agents who were untrained and uninformed in aviation matters, resulted in a body of witness statements unsuited to an aircraft accident investigation. Further, many witness accounts gathered by the FBI were tainted by newspaper accounts of the accident and/or by suggestive questioning of the FBI interviewer. Finally, the failure of the NTSB to obtain and review the witness statements promptly after the accident and again after the FBI suspended its criminal investigation in November 1997, resulted in the irretrievable loss of valuable information.

2.1.2 The premature release of incomplete investigative information, the clear break with established protocol, the intense media attention this accident received, and the parallel criminal investigation obscured the focus and direction of the search for the probable cause of the accident.


4.0 Recommendations

4.1 Where a criminal investigation parallels the NTSB accident investigation, the NTSB must take all necessary steps to ensure preservation of all evidence pertinent to finding the probable cause of the accident.

4.2 Where aircraft wreckage is to be recovered from under sea or from difficult or remote terrain the NTSB should ensure that an accurate mapping of such wreckage is complete before recovery efforts proceed.

4.3 Regardless of any parallel or on-going criminal investigation, the NTSB must have prompt access to all eyewitnesses to an accident.

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