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TWA Flight 800 investigation ends

Nov. 19, 1997

FBI concludes that explosion was not caused by a criminal act

The Associated Press

After scrutinizing more than one million pieces of wreckage, conducting 7,000 interviews and spending up to $20 million, the FBI officially pulled out of the probe into TWA Flight 800 Tuesday, saying the explosion was not caused by a criminal act.

Investigators also released a videotaped simulation of the jet's last minutes to back up their conclusion and explain what scores of witnesses actually saw when the plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.

'We ran out of things to do,'' Assistant FBI Director James Kallstrom said at a news conference.

'Following 16 months of unprecedented investigation ... we must now report that no evidence has been found which would indicate that a criminal act was the cause,' Kallstrom said.

The Associated Press reported last Wednesday that the FBI had told families of the 230 victims that it would suspend the probe, turning the investigation over to the National Transportation Safety Board.

TWA Flight 800 had just left Kennedy Airport for Paris on July 17, 1996, when its center fuel tank exploded, killing everyone aboard. It broke apart at 13,700 feet and crashed into the ocean 10 miles off Long Island.

Kallstrom showed the CIA-produced videotape, with its computer-generated recreation of the disaster, to explain why 244 eyewitnesses reported streaks of light that some thought were a missile.

Investigators concluded that the witnesses actually were seeing the crippled plane itself, several seconds after the initial explosion. The sound of the blast reached them later, making them think they were watching the beginning of the disaster instead of its end, the FBI concluded.

Ninety-six percent of the wreckage was painstakingly recovered from the sea and reassembled in a Long Island hangar. Investigators looked at more than 1,400 places where the plane was torn and 259 areas of missing fuselage, and took more than 2,000 chemical swabbings, Kallstrom said.

They searched the metal, fabric and wires for telltale signs of explosives, and tried to match up possible entry and exit holes that a missile would have made.

FBI scientists shot missile warheads at scrapped jumbo jets in the Southwest desert to compare scarring to TWA 800's mangled body.

Nothing matched.

Aware that the long investigation fueled conspiracy theories and suspicion, Kallstrom bluntly rejected such conjecture.

Asked about a speck of radar some thought was a missile, or forensic evidence that might have indicated a missile, Kallstrom responded: 'Never was. Never will be.''

He also rejected suggestions that the investigation was too long.

'We had to look at every dark crack and crevice in this investigation,' he said. 'We are the Federal Bureau of Total Investigation ... not the Federal Bureau of the Obvious.''

Kallstrom attacked those who claimed the military accidentally shot down the plane and that the government covered it up. He said the FBI identified all military assets within 200 miles, documented all training exercises and accounted for all weapons capable of reaching the plane.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Tuesday air-travel security precautions resulting from the disaster remain in place.

'I think we have some confidence that we struck the right balance, irrespective of the announcement today,' he said.

Families of the dead filed lawsuits last year blaming the airline and Boeing, the 747's manufacturer, alleging mechanical malfunction. Seattle-based Boeing said it would continue to work with the NTSB in looking for the cause.

Kallstrom left the door open to new leads.

'If something comes up, we are going to jump into it with both feet as quickly as possible,'' he said. 'We are not writing a big 'closed' on it and putting it in some dusty safe somewhere.'

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