Like almost everything else surrounding the tragic explosion of TWA Flight 800, the hearings that begin today in Baltimore will be huge in scope and, in many ways, unprecedented.
No one is expecting any earth-shattering revelations as the National Transportation Safety Board lays out findings to date from its exhaustive, complex, and ongoing investigation - the largest it has ever undertaken.
Even so, the nation's attention is likely to be sharply focused on the NTSB hearings. At their heart lies the still-unanswered question: What caused the mostly empty center fuel tank to explode, turning the 25-year-old 747 into a blaze in the night sky off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., in July 1996, killing all 230 people aboard. At the hearings, almost every conceivable possibility that has been explored will be put before the public, from frayed wires in the fuel tank to static electricity.
The NTSB hopes to assure the flying public that everything that can be done is being done to find the cause, so that such a tragedy can be prevented from happening again. The investigation has already prompted an international review of electrical equipment connected with fuel tanks, particularly on aging aircraft. The FAA has also ordered that some fuel pumps in older 747s be replaced.
An unsolvable mystery?
Still, some aviation experts believe the disturbing mystery will never be solved.
"They're going to be hard-pressed to ever find a primary cause, other than the fact that the fuel tank exploded," says Stuart Matthews, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, an independent, nonprofit organization that works to improve aviation safety.
The NTSB has spent more than $27 million to probe TWA 800, the most ever on an aviation investigation. An "investigative docket" containing more than 4,000 documents was made public yesterday. But, in a unique twist, not all the evidence will be open for examination. The FBI asked that some of it be withheld in the event that any new clue someday revives the theory that a criminal act sparked the tragedy.
"The possibility of this occurring is admittedly remote," the FBI's James Kallstrom wrote the head of the NTSB last week. "Nevertheless, until the NTSB has definitively determined an accidental cause for the crash, I believe it is prudent to withhold from public disclosure or discussion the identities of witnesses and the raw investigative details of the criminal investigation."
The FBI has brought one set of criminal charges in the case. Last week, it charged a TWA pilot, a flight attendant, and her husband with stealing pieces of cloth from one of the recovered seats on the plane. The pilot, Terrell Stacey, said he cooperated with flight attendant Elizabeth Sanders and her husband, James, because he was frustrated by the lack of progress in the investigation. Mr. Sanders had a laboratory test a red residue on the fabric and claimed the results supported his contention that an errant US missile caused the plane to explode. The FBI determined the residue was a patented glue used in the seat cover and traced the glue back to its manufacturer.
The FBI is also responsible for the long delay in the NTSB hearings, which are usually held within six months of a crash. But while the FBI was conducting a concurrent investigation, the NTSB had to keep its public role in check. Just three weeks ago, the FBI said the explosion was not caused by a missile or a bomb.
"The NTSB was like a deer frozen in the headlights until the FBI made its move," says David Stempler of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington-based airline passengers' advocacy group. "Now that there's been closure, they can get on with their public work."
For the families of the victims, the hearing will finally allow them and their lawyers access to information that may help them with their legal claims. Some family members have already brought suit against TWA and Boeing, the plane's manufacturer, claiming they are liable for the passengers' deaths.
"We all understand the center-wing fuel tank was in a combustible state at the time, and that alone is the basis for liability," says Tom Ellis, a spokesman for one of the six law firms that have formed the Plaintiffs Steering Committee.
The families' lawyers will scour the results of the NTSB's fuel and electricity tests, the plane's fueling records, statements by crew members, "virtually every document they release to us," Mr. Ellis says.
The hearings will also examine whether the aircraft's age played any role in the disaster. Most planes are designed for a 20-year life span, but with proper maintenance, experts say, they can fly as many as 30 years. The TWA Flight 800 plane was 25 years old.
John Strong, a transportation finance expert, contends that the FAA's high maintenance standards and the airlines' newer fleets make age "less of a concern than eight or 10 years ago." But with more international airlines coming into the US market, some with older fleets and lower maintenance standards, the issue could impact overall safety.