Statement of Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
at Opening of NTSB Board Meeting
to Consider Final Report Crash of TWA Flight 800
August 22, 2000
Good morning and welcome to this meeting of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Under the "Government In The Sunshine Act," multi-member federal agencies such as the Safety Board conduct much of their business in open session. Therefore, Board meetings are often called "Sunshine meetings." While the public is invited to observe the meeting, only the Board Members and NTSB staff will participate in today's discussion. Today's meeting is also being simulcast to a worldwide audience on our website at www.ntsb.gov.
A handout is available at the entrance to the Boardroom reiterating this information about our process. Copies of a pamphlet that explains the Board and its work in some detail are also available there.
During this meeting, the Board Members will discuss a draft report that has been prepared by staff. Because it is at this point just a draft, it is not available to the public. We will discuss the report section by section, soliciting staff comments and explanations on many points. Once we have reviewed all the issues, we will consider the staff's draft conclusions, probable cause determination, and specific safety recommendations. We will then determine if we should approve the draft, with any revisions we have discussed.
Sometimes all or part of a draft conclusion, probable cause, or recommendation is revised or rejected by the Members. That is because you are viewing the Board's actual deliberations over the document. That is the purpose of the Sunshine Act -- to provide the public with a window into the decision-making process.
In the event of an emergency, such as a fire, the building alarm system will activate and a voice message will instruct that we vacate the building. You should proceed to the nearest exit. There are emergency exits up here to the left and to the right of the platform and at the back of the room.
Restrooms are located in the foyer on the left as you exit this room, and on the promenade level above us. You may use the phones in the foyer for local and credit card calls. Cell phones will work if you walk outside. Most do not work in here, nor do most pagers. There are many eating establishments on the promenade level. Please understand that food and drink of any kind may not be brought into the meeting room.
There are many members of the NTSB staff here today. I know they will be pleased to assist you in any way they can. Please do not hesitate to ask them for help if you need it.
Ladies and gentlemen, almost 1,500 days have passed since that terrible day in July 1996 when TWA flight 800 crashed off the coast of Long Island, New York. It was a tragic event that stirred strong feelings and emotions throughout this country and throughout the world.
We had an airline of world renown, a category of aircraft, the Boeing-747, that had compiled an outstanding safety record in some three decades of service -- and yet, 230 individuals lost their lives in a few stark moments.
The crash of flight 800 graphically demonstrated that, even in one of the safest transportation systems in the world, things can go horribly wrong. It should stand as a reminder to us all of the need for diligence and aggressive action in identifying and eliminating potential safety problems.
I would like to welcome and acknowledge the presence here today of many of the flight 800 family members. These next two days may be difficult for you but I hope that you can take some comfort from seeing the great amount of work that has gone into this investigation. I want you to know that all of our efforts have been aimed at preventing similar tragedies in the future.
I also would like to again express my appreciation to the authorities in New York -- to the police, divers, fire, rescue and emergency assistance units, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, as well as the private citizens - who made such valiant efforts in the immediate hours and days after the aircraft went down. And, I want to also thank the Coast Guard, the Navy, the FBI, NOAA, and the many other agencies that assumed major roles in the search and recovery effort.
I would also like to note the encouragement and support we have received from the White House and the Congress in providing the resources needed to conduct what has become the most extensive, complex and expensive investigation in the Safety Board's 33-year history.
From the beginning, the scope and dimensions of this investigation have been extraordinary. The salvage effort organized by the Navy, one of the largest diver-assisted salvage operations ever conducted, extended from July to November 1996. The Navy divers worked in very dangerous and difficult conditions and, for a time, their efforts had to be halted because of the onset of the Atlantic hurricane season. When the diving operations were completed, there followed months of work by contracted fishing trawlers that scoured hundreds of miles of the ocean floor. In the end, we recovered the remains of all 230 victims and more than 95% of the aircraft.
The reconstruction of a 93-foot segment of the aircraft fuselage, including the center wing fuel tank, was unique both in size and scope. More than 30 people worked meticulously for many months to sort through the innumerable pieces of wreckage and assemble the reconstruction in an effort to better understand what had happened to flight 800.
The number of organizations, public and private, that played a significant role in this investigation is extensive. I want to pause for a few moments so that you can all see the almost 500 names of those entities and individuals that contributed to the investigative process on the screens in front of you. The Safety Board staff and various government and private research organizations under contract to the NTSB undertook an unprecedented amount of research and testing.
For example, Safety Board staff leased a B-747 to study the temperatures and environment inside the aircraft's center wing tank. We also conducted extensive research into the composition and explosive characteristics of Jet A fuel. In addition, we conducted tests and computer simulation work to study flame and pressure propagation in the center wing tank. Early on in the process, investigators began looking at what role electro-magnetic interference from external emitters or sources internal to the aircraft may have been played in the crash. The investigation also included the most extensive radar data study in the Board's history, including a review of several hundred thousand radar returns from nine radar locations in five states. The investigative team also spent a great deal of time organizing and carefully analyzing the summaries of witness interviews the Federal Bureau of Investigation provided to the Board.
We will be reviewing the work done by the Witness Group and many of the others in the course of this meeting.
All of the investigative work undertaken as part of this investigation was extremely complex. Because of the need for precision and, in some cases, the danger posed to those performing the tests, the work had to be painstakingly done to make sure that it was done properly, safely, and accurately. And it was not inexpensive.
We were fortunate to secure the assistance of a broad array of institutions, including the Department of Defense laboratories at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Navy's China Lake and Patuxent River facilities. Important work also was done at NASA's Langley Research Center and the Sandia National Laboratory, among others. We also contracted with private institutions such as the California Institute of Technology and the University of Nevada, Reno, and various specialist firms to conduct research. Experts from other countries, including the United Kingdom, Norway and Canada also assisted us. And, the French aviation authorities participated under the terms of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Annex 13).
Much has been learned over the course of the last four years and the five Board members will be examining and discussing the results of the staff's work during this Sunshine meeting. I must emphasize that over the next two days you will observe some extremely technical discussions about the issues raised in this investigation. In preparation for this meeting, the Board Members each read the 684-page report and the 177 pages of information provided in the party submissions. The extensive record of the investigation now approaches some 15,000 pages - and is available to everyone in the public docket. The investigative groups' factual reports can also be found on our web page; the other supporting documentation is available in CD-ROM format.
During the course of this investigation, the Board received a great number of suggestions and comments from many individuals and organizations on possible causes of the crash of flight 800 and recommendations for possible lines of investigation. Much of this commentary has been well informed and we appreciated receiving it. Safety Board staff reviewed all of this material and took those ideas that appeared to have a scientific basis and offered a reasonable line of inquiry into account as they investigated the accident.
In the early months of the investigation, it became clear that an explosion of flammable vapors in the aircraft's center wing tank initiated the breakup and subsequent crash of flight 800. In December 1996, based on the Board's conclusion that heated, flammable vapors in an aircraft fuel tank poses a serious risk to safe flight, the Board recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration study design changes to deal with this problem and that, in the interim, they require operational changes to enhance safety. In April 1998, the Board issued another set of recommendations focused on aircraft wiring and the fuel quantity indication system.
During this meeting, we will be assessing what has been done in response to these recommendations and what remains to be accomplished.
More broadly, the flight 800 investigation has uncovered and focused the attention of the aviation community on some very important safety issues -- fuel tank protection, the vulnerability of aircraft wiring, and a number of aging aircraft issues. We will pursue these issues in some detail over the next two days.
There is a lot of ground to cover, but before moving ahead, I would like to make an additional comment.
I know that, at the outset, many have believed that the crash of flight 800 was caused by a criminal act. And, for many, the events of the times - the ongoing court trials in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings in New York and the heightened concerns about terrorism at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta -- seemed to lend a certain credence to the notion. Certainly, the very nature of the event and its rarity led some to question whether the crash of flight 800 really was an accident.
As many of you know, a substantial law enforcement investigation was conducted in parallel with the Safety Board's investigation. After conducting an extensive investigation, the FBI suspended its investigation in November 1997 indicating that no evidence had been found to indicate that a criminal act was the cause of the tragedy of TWA flight 800.
Despite this finding, some have urged the Safety Board to assume, in effect, a law enforcement role to prove or disprove their assertion that the crash of flight 800 was the result of a bomb or a missile. That is beyond this agency's mandate and authority. Our focus is safety. Our people are aviators, engineers and scientists - some of the very best in the world; they are not criminal investigators.
However, even though our employees are not law enforcement personnel, they examined every piece of wreckage for any physical evidence that the crash of flight 800 could have been caused by a bomb or missile. Had we they found such evidence, we would have immediately referred the matter back to the appropriate law enforcement authorities for their action.
Let me state unequivocally, the Safety Board found no such evidence.
To the flight 800 families, I would like to add this: It is unfortunate that a small number of people, pursuing their own agendas, have persisted in making unfounded charges of a government cover-up in this investigation. These people do a grievous injustice to the many dedicated individuals, civilian and military, who have been involved in this investigation.
Some 75 NTSB staff members have participated in this investigation. I'll pause while their names are being listed on the screens in front of you. Collectively, they have more than 1,000 years of government and aviation industry experience. Many of them have served in the military, including service in Southeast Asia and in the Gulf War. These men and women, in my opinion, represent the best in U.S. government service.
I recognize that the TWA flight 800 investigation is technically complex, and that knowledgeable people can disagree over some of the substantive matters. But I take exception to those who consistently distort the record and persist in making unfounded charges of a cover-up. They do a disservice to us all -- but most especially to you, the TWA 800 families, who have suffered so much in this tragedy. And, for that I'm sorry.
In its 33-year history, the Safety Board has earned a well-deserved reputation for independence, impartiality, honesty, and diligence. We have tenaciously adhered to those values during this investigation - as we have in every investigation. The NTSB's staff has the highest personal and professional integrity, and I assure you that they have done their very best to find the cause of this accident and to make recommendations that will prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future.