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Sunday, December 21, 2003
Trailing the Truth About TWA Tragedy
By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Investigative Reporter
LOS ANGELES Much of Ray Lahr's life has been about serving his country.
He entered the Navy during World War II and became a fighter pilot. Later, as a pilot for United Airlines and a safety committee member for the Air Line Pilots Association, he assisted the National Transportation Safety Board in the investigations of eight airplane crashes.
But last Monday, in a federal courtroom in downtown Los Angeles, Lahr and his government sat at opposing tables.
Lahr, now retired and living in nearby Malibu, is suing the National Transportation Safety Board for documents related to the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., shortly after takeoff in July 1996.
Lahr doesn't believe the safety board's finding that TWA 800 continued to climb for about 34 seconds and some 1,200 to 2,200 feet after an initial explosion.
The NTSB found that the streak of light reported by witnesses to the crash wasn't produced by a missile but was instead the result of burning fuel during the crippled flight.
In short, without the crippled-flight theory, the safety board has no explanation for the streak of light reported by at least 258 witnesses to the disaster.
Lahr believes a missile struck TWA 800 but isn't sure whether it was fired by terrorists or the U.S. military. Military aircraft and water craft were in the vicinity of the crash.
Olympics and Clinton
Lahr said a finding that a missile brought down TWA 800 would have affected the Olympics that summer in Atlanta and the presidential campaign.
"It would have killed the Olympics," he said. "It would have killed the re-election chances of President Clinton. I really think it was a cover-up."
The former pilot has been trying for more than three years to get the safety board to release more documents and data related to how it came up with the crippled-flight theory. He said he has spent more than $10,000 on the effort.
"I just feel like I owe it to my country to get to the truth," Lahr said.
His lawsuit against the NTSB is in its initial stages, and U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz ruled on only procedural issues at a brief hearing Monday morning.
But in a small and legally inconsequential victory for Lahr, Matz has noted that Lahr isn't alone in his skepticism in the safety board's finding that mechanical failure, not a missile, brought down TWA 800.
There are numerous books and Web sites alleging a government cover-up, and about 20 people showed at the court hearing to support Lahr.
One of those in the courtroom was Lisa Michelson of suburban Los Angeles, whose 19-year-son Yon Rojany died on TWA 800. He was on his way to Italy to try out for the Italian basketball league.
"People tend to look at you like a 'conspiracist' because you don't buy the accepted line," Michelson said. "But I've never been one to buy the accepted line if it's not right."
A $30 million inquiry
TWA Flight 800, a Boeing Co. 747-131, took off about 8:19 on the evening of July 17, 1996. It was en route from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City to Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris.
The plane had 212 passengers and a flight crew of 18. All were killed. The flight lasted just 12 minutes or so.
There was immediate speculation that TWA 800 may have been brought down by a missile or a bomb.
The NTSB spent more than $30 million investigating the accident, with some studies conducted by an Albuquerque company. It was the most extensive investigation in the history of the safety board.
The NTSB found that the probable cause of the crash was an explosion of the center wing fuel tank resulting from ignition of the flammable fuel/air mixture in the tank.
The safety board said it couldn't determine the source of the ignition but said the source was most likely a short circuit.
The plane was at about 13,800 feet at the time of the explosion, according to the NTSB. A few seconds after the explosion, the nose portion of the plane which weighed about 80,000 pounds separated from the aircraft.
The safety board said the plane, with its wings still intact, pitched up while rolling to the left, climbing to about 15,000 to 16,000 feet. It then rolled into a falling turn and developed into a fireball, dropping into the Atlantic Ocean.
The NTSB said the fireball probably began developing about 34 seconds after the fuel tank explosion. That would be about the duration of the reported streak of light.
"Therefore, the safety board concludes that the witness observations of a streak of light were not related to a missile and that the streak of light reported by most of these witnesses was burning fuel from the accident airplane in crippled flight during some portion of the postexplosion, preimpact breakup sequence," the NTSB said.
The safety board acknowledged, however, that the crippled-fight theory didn't explain the recollections of 18 witnesses who reported that the streak of light originated at the surface or from the horizon.
Fighting a theory
The NTSB said the recollections of those witnesses may have been affected by bad interview techniques or by errors in memory or perception.
The safety board also said that nearly all of the body of the plane was recovered from the ocean and that there was no damage typically associated with a missile.
Lahr, 78, a father and grandfather, brought his lawsuit against the NTSB under the Freedom of Information Act.
He is not only trying to obtain more documents and data but is waging a campaign against the crippled-flight theory.
His latest document filed in the case includes some two dozen affidavits from experts and others that Lahr said support his belief that there was no crippled flight.
"The (NTSB) records at issue were conceived and tailored to explain away the eyewitnesses," Lahr said in the document. "The NTSB's science is junk."
Lahr, who has a degree in engineering in addition to his experience as a pilot and crash investigator, said he believes the left wing of TWA 800 came off after the explosion and that the plane couldn't have continued to climb without the wing.
Even if the wing didn't separate, Lahr said, the plane would have pitched up and stalled at best, ascending a few hundred more feet.
Michelson likens the flight of TWA 800 to a duck that has its head shot off by a hunter. The duck falls; it doesn't continue to climb, she said.
"I know from common sense that just doesn't make sense," Michelson said. "If it didn't go up, what were the streaks of light?"
A war over documents
Michelson said the FBI initially told victims' families that the plane was brought down by a missile. "I believe they were told to turn it into a mechanical failure," she said.
The NTSB has made many of the documents related to TWA 800 available to the public.
Lahr is seeking records that would show how the safety board reached some of the conclusions outlined in the public documents. For example, he is seeking the computer program and data used in a NTSB video animation of TWA 800 in crippled flight.
The safety board, in response to Lahr's requests for additional documents and data, provided him with some records in their entirety and some documents with redactions.
The board also withheld some documents entirely, arguing that they didn't have to be disclosed because they contained information that was proprietary or information that was related to internal agency deliberations or personnel.
Boeing, the maker of the 747 that crashed, has also intervened in the case to protect what it says is proprietary information about its aircraft.
If the lawsuit proceeds, a judge will determine what, if any, documents withheld by the NTSB must be released to Lahr. That could take months, if not years.
A government lawyer said the lawsuit is about a request under the Freedom of Information Act, not about what caused TWA 800 to fall into the Atlantic Ocean.
"It is not a case to review the findings of the NTSB," said Jan Luymes, an assistant U.S. attorney representing the safety board.
John Clarke, a Washington lawyer representing Lahr, acknowledged that the lawsuit has its limits. "The judge can't order the NTSB back to the drawing board," he said.
That can be accomplished only by public pressure resulting from publicity about the lawsuit and the evidence of a government cover-up, Clarke said.
"We're not hurting for evidence," the lawyer said. "We've already proved it."