Unsolved Mysteries Wiki

Real Name: TWA Flight 800
Case: Historical Event/Conspiracy
Location: Atlantic Ocean
Date: July 17, 1996


Details: On the evening of July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 left JFK Airport in New York carrying 212 passengers and 18 crew. It was headed for Paris, France. Just a few minutes after takeoff, it exploded in mid-air off the coast of Long Island, New York. Everyone on board perished. Although the U.S. government and most investigators claimed that the explosion was an accident, other theories include that the plane was struck by a U.S. missile or that a bomb was on board, and the government may have covered up the incident. However, they deny all of the allegations against them.
Four months after the crash, former press secretary Pierre Salinger became the first to publicly state that he believed the flight had been shot down by the U.S. Navy and that they were attempting to conceal the truth.
Since the night of the crash, tons of wreckage and debris have been taken from the ocean floor in an attempt to piece the plane back together. Officials narrowed down the cause of the crash to three possibilities: a bomb, mechanical malfunction, or a shoulder-launched terrorist missile. The missile scenario is supported by thirty eyewitness accounts who claimed to have seen an unusual streak of light in the sky just before the explosion.
However, physicist and missile expert Bud Sewell claimed that those accounts could just as likely support a bomb scenario. He claimed that a terrorist bomb, if properly designed, could give off a bright luminous streak similar to the eyewitness testimony. Also, there appeared to be no other evidence of a missile hit, especially one from the Navy. However, Salinger claimed that he had found evidence to support his theory.
At a press conference in Paris, he produced still frames of radar sweeps that he claimed were recorded in the control tower of JFK Airport on the night of the crash. On one, there was an unidentified object to the left of the plane. He believed that it was a Navy surface-to-air missile. On another sweep just seconds before the explosion, it disappeared from view. In later radar frames, the TWA flight designation vanished from the screen.
The government claimed to have found no evidence to support a missile hit. Salinger, however, claimed that there was evidence that some of the victims on the plane were crushed by an object that went through it.
There was some circumstantial evidence that appeared to support the Navy missile theory. On the night of the crash, military exercises were being conducted off the Long Island coast. The plane diverted from its original flight path to avoid a restricted area. The only ship in the area with standard missile capability at the time of the crash was the USS Normandy. However, it was 180 miles away from the site. The maximum range of the standard missile was 80 miles. Also, a missile expert claimed that the Navy's missiles were too expensive for them to fire off during exercises.
Finally, it would be very unlikely for the military to have covered up the incident because there were over 100 crewmen aboard the USS Normandy. Also, hundreds of civilians involved in the investigation would have to have lied if the conspiracy theory was true. However, theorists have noted that the military has been less-than cooperative with incidents in the past. After the USS Vincennes accidently shot down an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, the military initially justified the incident by using false information. They claimed that it had been emitting military codes. They have since admitted that this was not true.
The missile expert stated that he contacted the Navy after the crash. They confirmed that they could account for every missile in their fleet by serial number. However, Salinger and others continued to insist that the government was lying.
Suspects: Some believe that the US military may have accidentally fired a missile at the plane, or that an unidentified individual placed a bomb onboard.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the February 14, 1997 episode. It was also briefly mentioned in the case of the US Marine Corps Helicopter Crash.
Some have noted similarities between this crash and that of Iran Air Flight 655. This was featured in a segment about an attack against Captain Will Rogers's wife, Sharon.
Results: Unresolved. On August 23, 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its final report on the crash. The report stated the probable cause of the crash was an explosion of flammable fuel vapors in the center fuel tank. While the plane was waiting at the airport, the air conditioning units were turned on to keep the passengers cool. It is believed that the units heated the nearly empty center fuel tank, creating a volatile fuel/air mixture. Based on problems found with the plane's wiring and evidence of arcing in wiring that entered the tank, the likely ignition source was believed to be a short circuit between the low-voltage wire used by the fuel gauges and high-voltage wires used in other airplane systems that allowed excessive voltage to enter the tank.
Despite the exhaustive investigation, some theorists still believe that a missile or a bomb was the true cause of the crash. Salinger died in 2004.