TWA Flight 800 Books about TWA Flight 800 flawed by lack of skepticism, incomplete conclusions

In the Blink of an Eye
by Pat Milton
(Random House, $26.95)

Deadly Departure
by Christine Negroni
(HarperCollins, $25)

When TWA Flight 800 broke apart over Long Island's waters in July 1996, killing all 230 people on board, it was the worst commercial aviation disaster in U.S. history. 

Despite near-perfect conditions for investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), FBI and CIA (cost: more than $40 million), the cause apparently remains unknown, though the NTSB is scheduled to meet Aug. 22 to formulate its final report. Two recent books about the crash fail to explain the tragedy. 

Associated Press reporter Pat Milton focuses on lead FBI investigator James Kallstrom in her account, In the Blink of an Eye. And Mr. Kallstrom comes across as her tragic hero, despite an immediately apparent problem: His heroism is dubious. Even with unlimited authority, he failed in his primary task, to determine the cause of the crash. Nevertheless, Ms. Milton presents his work as exemplary. 

FBI and NTSB investigators hovered in Long Island for weeks while bodies and wreckage remained unrecovered and passengers' families were suspended in agonies of uncertainty, not knowing for sure even who was on the plane. While TWA had a hand in the long information delay, it was the FBI, Ms. Milton notes, that seized the passenger manifest almost immediately. 

Other facts demand deeper scrutiny than is present here. Ms. Milton does not mention the FBI's insistence that the wreckage be evaluated by a manufacturer of projectiles used for military exercises. The timing of the order is odd, given that it came after the FBI ruled out friendly fire. Ms. Milton never mentions that former NTSB member Vernon Grose publicly expressed doubts about the investigation after attending a missile-theory presentation. And she ignores a still-unidentified radar track consistent with a boat moving at 30 knots directly beneath TWA Flight 800 when it was destroyed; the plane blew up, and the radar track kept moving serenely out to sea. 

That a top journalist leaves crucial details unexplored renders Blink as unfinished as the investigation. True, the FBI, NTSB, Navy divers and hundreds of others may have worked diligently to solve the mystery, but hard work is not the sole measure of heroism. Ms. Milton's adoring plea that investigators really, really tried is hardly the whole story. 

While Ms. Milton presents an apologia for the FBI, former CNN reporter Christine Negroni postulates the NTSB's pet theory—mechanical failure—in Deadly Departure. She fares slightly better. Interspersing haunting stories of passengers—which works—with the case against Boeing—which doesn't—Ms. Negroni cites previous explosions as evidence that the aircraft manufacturer has failed to build safer airplanes. With TWA Flight 800 as the first 747 to explode in flight, it's a tough sell. 

However, like the NTSB, Ms. Negroni's real problem lies in her limited scope. She cites other fuel-tank explosions, including a 707 struck by lightning in 1963 and a TWA jet that aborted takeoff and crashed because of engine failure. By making fuel-tank explosions her theme, the former aviation reporter dismisses the source of the ignition as unimportant. Stating that the plane was brought down by a fuel-tank explosion, as Ms. Negroni does, is false; it's like claiming the Titanic was sunk by a lookout lacking binoculars. 

Deadly Departure is at its best when Ms. Negroni gets to the investigation's inside story, citing numerous blunders and serious breaches of investigative procedures and noting the secrecy and inefficiency of those involved. Commenting on the huge presence of FBI and other federal agents, one NTSB investigator remarked, "What do they know that I don't know?"

This 2000 book review was published in the Dallas Morning News, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Birmingham News, Indianapolis Star, and Los Angeles Daily News.

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