Hughes spent 42 years as an investigator for the army, the Fairfax County, Va., police department and the NTSB, where he spent 26 years. In the case of the Flight 800 investigation, Hughes saw it up close. It was not pretty. Roughly two dozen agencies were involved, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the CIA, the FBI and the NTSB.
Some FBI agents, it appears, were heavy-handed. In one instance, Hughes said, "The FBI would not allow the NTSB, which had primary jurisdiction, to handle evidence. I convinced them 'it's an airplane; we can put it together for you.'" In another instance, Hughes said, some of his evidence disappeared. It seems clear that being part of the tangled, conflict-laden investigatory process gave Hughes cause to doubt the results.
What was the NTSB's motive to report false results? Hughes said, "I'm not getting into motive, but there were serious mistakes. The case needs to be reopened to determine what happened. We have 230 people who died and we owe it to them to get it right." During Wednesday's news conference, all of the participants declined to speculate on motive.
"I like to do my job, and this is the one case in my career that I wasn't allowed to finish," Hughes said. When I asked him who killed John Kennedy, he named Lee Harvey Oswald, which I believe is the right answer, the one doubted by conspiracy theorists who have "investigated" that incident. "I'm not a conspiracy theorist," Hughes said.
The NTSB said it received the petition for reconsideration on Wednesday. "As required by NTSB regulation, a petition for reconsideration of Board findings or a probable cause determination must be based on the discovery of new evidence or on a showing that the Board's findings are erroneous," the agency said, in a prepared statement. "The NTSB will review the details of the petition to determine if it meets the requirements set forth in the regulation.
"The TWA Flight 800 investigation lasted four years and remains one of the NTSB's most detailed investigations," the NTSB added. "Investigators took great care reviewing, documenting and analyzing facts and data and the NTSB held a five-day hearing to gather additional facts before determining the probable cause of the accident during a two-day Board meeting. The NTSB's final report of this investigation includes more than 400 pages of detailed information (while) the NTSB's docket, which has been available to the public since the late-1990s contains more than 17,000 pages of supporting material."
In 2003, the agency received a petition regarding Flight 800 from physicist Tom Stalcup, co-producer of the documentary, and a participant in the media conference on Wednesday. The petition "was reviewed and denied," said NTSB spokeswoman Kelly Nantel.
The documentary film relies heavily on recollections of eyewitnesses who believe they saw a missile launched before the crash occurred. Their beliefs seem sincere; however, in general in accident investigations, the veracity of eye-witness accounts is discounted. It is also important to remember that immediately after the crash, speculation focused on the possibility of a bomb on the aircraft. Then it shifted to the possibility of a missile. This was the prevailing wisdom as the investigation began. Any move away from it could be viewed as a cover-up, especially given the agency infighting.
Moreover, the Internet was in its infancy then. The crash became "one of the first Internet conspiracy events," Goelz said. Today, one site proclaims that the Clintons were involved in the cover-up, motivated by concern that a terrorist attack on a commercial aircraft would have dimmed Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election prospects.
Flight 800 conspiracy theorists have offered various scenarios over time. "Originally, they believed that the U.S. Navy was conducting live fire exercises off the Hamptons during one of the busiest flight times of the day," Goelz said. "When that theory was laughed off the stage, they shifted to a dummy missile that pierced the cabin of the plane, left missile fuel residue across the seats and then exited the plane. That was completely preposterous. Then it became Al-Qaeda or somebody like that shooting missiles at the plane."
The theorists "don't just doubt the NTSB; they doubt government and they cherry-pick facts," Goelz said. "There is an innate desire in the human brain to try and make sense of stuff, to connect the dots when there is no connection. To have a conspiracy to cover up a criminal act of this magnitude would have taken hundreds and hundreds of people agreeing to keep our mouths shut. On what planet does that happen?"
-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.
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