Statement by Jim Hall Chairman,
National Transportation Safety Board
at the Closing of the NTSB Investigative Hearing
Into the Crash of TWA Flight 800
Baltimore, Maryland, December 12, 1997
With the last witness having been heard, we have concluded this phase of the Safety Board's investigation into the crash of TWA flight 800.
In closing, I want to express my deep appreciation to all the participants in this hearing. I believe that we have had a very productive week.
As I said when we began, NTSB hearings are an exercise in accountability. In holding this hearing 17 months after the TWA 800 tragedy, we were seeking to explain to the American public just where we are in the investigation, and describe in some detail what has been done to date, not only by the NTSB and its contractors, but also by industry and the federal regulatory authorities. We have presented all of the factual information available at this time.
I hope that we have been successful in demonstrating the breadth and depth of the effort to determine exactly what happened to TWA 800. We have sought to take a careful, objective look at all conceivable ideas and theories, and have called on a wide array of experts to assist us in this endeavor. We are by no means finished. Our work will continue and we will spare no effort to determine the cause of the crash of TWA 800. I am confident that, in the process, we will learn a great deal more that will help make our air transportation system even safer.
This hearing also represents what I believe is a milestone in forging a broad-based, systematic approach to dealing with the dangerous vapors that accumulate in fuel tanks. The acceptance of a two-track approach to the problem is an important safety advance. As testimony this week has shown, dangerous conditions in fuel tanks occur more commonly than has been believed. And when the tank is heated the amount of energy needed to ignite the vapors drops significantly.
I welcome the FAA's willingness to take another look and re-evaluate the recommendations on fuel/air mixture volatility made by the NTSB one year ago. I also welcome the Boeing Company's expressed openness to examining additional ways of dealing with the dangers of fuel tank vapors suggested by the Safety Board.
The NTSB has long advocated a two-track approach to the fuel tank problem pointed up by the crash of TWA 800. This position derives in part from lessons learned over the years. Thirty years of accident investigation experience has taught us the value of not relying on a single approach to resolving a serious safety problem. We applaud the work that has been done to remove all potential ignition sources for fuel tank explosions. But -- as has been stated frequently at this meeting -- as we can never be sure that all possible ignition sources have been eliminated, the Safety Board strongly believes that additional measures to stabilize fuel tank vapors are necessary and prudent.
The Board certainly recognizes the need to proceed carefully in making changes to systems that, on the whole, have performed safely and reliably for extended periods of time. We want to be sure that the fixes that are made are the right ones, and that new problems are not introduced. But these concerns should not immobilize government and industry and inhibit us from acting vigorously and with dispatch when, as in the case of TWA 800, a serious problem is uncovered. It is only through prompt, effective and sustained action that the aviation industry and the government's regulatory system can retain the confidence of the American people.
Let me emphasize that this investigation will remain open to receive, at any time, new and pertinent information concerning the issues discussed this week. The Board may at its discretion again reopen the hearing in order that such information may be made part of the public record.
The Board welcomes any information or recommendations regarding this accident from the parties or the public that may assist us in our efforts to ensure the safe operation of commercial aircraft. Any such recommendations should be sent to the National Transportation Safety Board, Washington, D.C. 20594, to Mr. Al Dickinson's attention. Normally, submissions should be received 30 days after the receipt of the transcript of this hearing. However, since there are still investigation activities open in this case, Mr. Dickinson will notify the parties when the final submissions are due. All the evidence developed in this investigation and hearing and all recommendations received within the specified time will be presented and evaluated in the final report on TWA flight 800 in which the Board's determination of the probable cause will be stated.
The record of the investigation, including the transcript of the hearing and all exhibits entered into the record, will become part of the Safety Board's public docket on this accident and will be available for inspection at the Board's Washington office. Anyone wanting to purchase the transcript, including the parties to the investigation, may contact the court reporter directly.
On behalf of the National Transportation Safety Board, I want to again thank the parties for their cooperation, not only during this proceeding but also throughout the entire investigation of this accident. Also, I would like to express sincere appreciation to all those individuals, groups, corporations and agencies who have provided their talents so willingly throughout this hearing.
I also want to thank the family members who have been with us this week. It is good that so many were able to attend.
I know that in many ways this has been a difficult week for you. I hope, though, that what you have seen of the work underway to solve TWA 800, and the effort by everyone here to learn how to prevent such tragedies in the future, may give you some degree of comfort. I have received a very gracious letter from the families thanking the Safety Board staff for their hard work.
I will submit this letter for the hearing record. Thank you again. We will continue to stay in close touch with you as the investigation proceeds.
I now declare this hearing to be in recess indefinitely.