TWA 800 inquiry lost in a labyrinth

On the first anniversary of the crash that killed 230, there is still no solid lead as to the cause

The waters off Long Island promise to be smooth this evening, pressed into silken submission by a heatwave typical for mid-July. They were that way on this night one year ago; then, however, they were also on fire.

It is the first anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800 and still we are asking the same question we asked that night as, glued to our television sets, we watched the flames dance on the ocean surface. What happened aboard that Boeing 747 - an aircraft with an unparalleled safety record - to have brought it down? A mammoth investigation still goes on, which, when it is done, will probably cost $50m (pounds 31m). The FBI at one point had 700 agents assigned to it. Some 95 per cent of the aircraft, its white-and-red-liveried body twisted and torn, has been recovered and a 90-foot section has been reconstructed.

And yet, as those most closely touched by the catastrophe - relatives and friends of the 230 who perished, Navy divers and rescue workers - gather over the next few days for memorial and remembrance services here, the balm of what grief counsellors might call "closure" is still missing.

It is a continuing mystery that also offers cause for unease for all of us. Until we understand what befell the plane, how can we know what we should be doing to stop it happening again?

Some progress has been made but none of it is especially reassuring. The earliest assumptions pointed to sabotage. In a country just recovering from the Oklahoma bombing and the attack three years earlier on the World Trade Center, to incline that way was not surprising. There was the simple bomb theory, spurred by memories of Lockerbie. More exotic was the notion that the climbing aircraft had been ripped open by a surface-to-air missile. Now, however, those scenarios are fading, principally because of the absence of any evidence of an an incendiary explosion among all the parts of the plane recovered.

The FBI only recently admitted that it has almost exhausted its leads and will probably conclude its part of the inquiry in two to three months.

That points to the other, perhaps more worrying, conclusion: that the aircraft, which was 25 years old and a veritable pensioner among commercial jets still flying, suffered some mechanical mishap.

For months the focus of the mechanical investigation has been the central fuel tank. It is now thought certain the plane broke into pieces when the tank, which was nearly empty at the plane's take-off from John F Kennedy airport, exploded. What, though, sparked that explosion? Experts this week began test flights out of JFK using a 747 of similar vintage to the one that crashed and which has been laced with 150 sensors to measure conditions on board.

Most importantly, they will monitor variations of temperature and movement in the fuel tank to understand how much energy would have been needed to cause an ignition.

A variety of possible causes are under scrutiny, ranging from sparks perhaps created by chafed wires connected to a fuel pump to, more improbably, the creation of an electro-magnetic field by passengers turning on devices like lap-top computers.Investigators also want to study the role played by air-conditioning units adjacent to the tank in heating the fuel vapours inside it.

If a culprit is identified, the consequences for the industry may be far-reaching, especially if age is determined to have been a factor. Of all the jet aircraft built, 80 per cent are still in service, many flying beyond their original life expectancies.

"Boeing and other manufacturers are claiming that as long as you properly maintain them you can run these planes for ever," said Vernon Gross, a former official of the National Transportation Safety Board. "That's a joke."

Even now, a legacy of the crash is forming. Spurred by the early sabotage theories, the government has begun putting in place new security arrangements at airports, including a requirement that bags always travel on the same aircraft as their owners. New procedures have also been designed to provide better support for friends and relatives bereaved when accidents occur.

As frustration with the length of the investigation grows, it is worth noting that solving such crashes is rarely easy. It is nearly three years, for instance, since a USAir 737 ploughed into woods close to Pittsburgh, killing all on board. The investigation is still going on.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine