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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?