Mayday (2013) s17e04 Episode Script

Explosive Proof

Power set.
A TWA flight 800 has exploded in mid-air.
The sea is on fire.
It was a horrible thing.
230 lives are lost.
Eyewitnesses give a frightening account.
A lot of them thought they saw missiles.
My gut said it was an act of terrorism.
Alright, let's get to it.
The search for the truth will pit crash investigators against the nation's most respected crime detectives.
Microscopic explosive traces of unknown origin.
The criminal aspect kept coming up over and over.
To make their case, the NTSB will attempt the unthinkable.
We're gonna rebuild the entire plane.
It really looks like an impossible job.
Heavy turn left here.
Go left on Bravo today It's a hot summer evening at John F Kennedy Airport in New York.
If you look off your left, 8:00 Trans World Airlines flight 800 is almost an hour late for departure.
The Boeing 747 jumbo jet is carrying 212 passengers, many of them now growing impatient for the flight to Paris to get underway.
Are we gonna start placing bets on when we actually push off? Captain Ralph Kevorkian is an experienced pilot but this will be just his second training flight as a 747 captain.
All airline pilots, including captains, are checked at least twice yearly in flight procedures and how well they coordinate with their crew, anything having to do with flying.
And it's just another safety measure that the airlines go through.
20 on us getting out of here before sundown.
I'll take that bet.
Captain Steve Snyder has been flying with TWA for over 30 years.
Tonight, he's conducting the line check on Captain Kevorkian while also acting as the first officer.
Janet Christopher is one of 14 flight attendants on the big jet.
It'll be much cooler when we're in the air.
She's doing all she can to make passengers comfortable during the ongoing delay.
She was very, very senior, the head stewardess on the aeroplane that evening.
It shouldn't be much longer.
Let me check with the captain.
Janet was on that plane that evening because she switched with another stewardess 'cause she wanted to be home that next weekend 'cause her son, Charles, was gonna be given his Eagle Scout.
The crowd's getting a bit restless.
Any news? I haven't heard anything yet.
They're still looking.
The reason for the delay is that a piece of luggage is on-board but its owner is not.
This is a red flag for airline security.
We were at a very high state of alert in the United States leading up to this and we had all kinds of threats coming in.
Not specific to aviation but, I mean, real, bona fide threats.
The bombing of Air India flight 182 a decade ago was a wakeup call for the entire industry.
Terrorists checked a bag packed with explosives onto a jumbo jet bound for Delhi.
329 people died.
Since then, all checked bags must be matched to seated passengers before any flight can depart.
Your old man tell you it was gonna be this exciting to fly - with us, Ollie? - Oh, yeah.
It's a thrill a minute, just like he described.
Flight engineer Oliver Krick is a new recruit with only six flights under his belt.
His father is also a TWA pilot.
The flight engineer was only 25 years old.
It had to be pretty exciting for him to be a flight engineer on the queen of the skies, the 747.
You wanna get in on this, Richard? 20 bucks.
Easy money.
Richard Campbell completes the cockpit crew.
He's on-board to help train the young flight engineer.
Passengers wait as the minutes tick by.
TWA 800.
Go ahead.
We're reconciled.
Passenger was on-board the whole time.
Are you kidding me? Roger that.
Hey, you owe me 20.
Yeah, yeah.
We'll settle up in Paris.
Ladies and gentlemen, from the flight deck, thank you all so much for your patience.
We've been cleared to go.
We'll be pushing back from the gate shortly.
Take-off thrust.
Finally, at 8:19pm, TWA flight 800 is airborne.
TWA 800, amend the altitude.
Maintain 13,000.
13,000 for now.
TWA 800.
OK, stop climb at 13,000.
Stop climb, 13,000.
Altitude reassignments are a routine part of the climb out from JFK.
The airspace around New York City is probably one of the busiest in the world.
You have not only JFK, you have La Guardia, the Liberty Airport, Teterboro, and they all have to mesh together air traffic control-wise.
- TWA 800, climb and maintain 15,000.
- Climb thrust.
TWA 800, climb and maintain 15,000 leaving 13,000.
Climb thrust.
Power set.
Talk to me.
What do you have for us? Without warning, a powerful explosion tears the fuselage apart.
In the front of the aeroplane that broke off, the centrifugal force had to be just horrendous as the nose fell down.
The front third of the plane is gone.
What's left continues skyward, engulfed in flames.
It went up at least another 1,000ft, maybe 1,500ft, you know, and flames pouring off of it.
It had to be horrible for the passengers.
You'd have a 250-300 knot wind all of a sudden blasting them in the face.
It was a horrible thing.
The TV had shots of pieces of wreckage, on fire, floating on the ocean.
Debris from TWA flight 800 litters the water nearly 75 miles east of Manhattan.
212 passengers, 17 crew.
212 passengers, 17 crew.
Search and rescue aircraft scan the sea.
A media swarm descends on Long Island, where dozens of witnesses are describing what they saw.
Me and my cousin, Joe, we was over by the dock over there and we was over there crabbing.
And, he said, "Yo, Darren, look at the - look up in the air.
There's a big ball of fire.
" You had boats coming in with pieces of wreckage on 'em and some bodies being brought right in there and all sorts of press people all over the place, and police.
The National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA and the FBI are on the scene of the crash.
As of now, no survivors have been found.
With a nation in shock, investigators begin the painstaking task of piecing together what happened to TWA 800.
By the next morning, it's clear that none of the 230 people aboard TWA 800 have survived.
It is the third deadliest airline disaster in US history.
The NTSB's lead investigator, Al Dickinson, faces an urgent task.
It was extremely important for us to find out what happened because there were so many 747s flying at that time.
The NTSB will lead the investigation while the FBI launches a parallel criminal inquiry.
You know, people think this is the exclusive jurisdiction of the NTSB.
That's not correct.
If it's a criminal matter, we have to get out there right away.
We're used to a large area.
They're used to a crime scene that they can tape off.
Try taping off a couple of miles worth of area out in the ocean.
It's impossible to do.
So they had to learn that things are handled a little bit differently.
Both agencies are hoping for quick results.
But TWA 800 will turn into one of the longest and most challenging investigations ever conducted.
A disused aircraft plant on Long Island becomes a massive hangar for thousands of pieces of aircraft debris being pulled from the ocean floor.
You can take that just down over there.
It was a perfect spot for us to put every bit of wreckage we recovered.
I mean, there's piles of it.
Nice to see you.
I just wish it was under better circumstances.
I think I should show you something.
Come with me.
Investigators have matched the seat numbers with the passenger and crew manifest.
They're able to determine who sat where, including flight attendant Janet Christopher.
Her and her husband were very close friends of my wife and I.
And I happened to be in their wedding.
This was almost certainly Janet's seat.
You look at a seat and then you put someone that you care very much for in that seat.
It's very emotional.
The FBI believe they may already have an explanation for the disaster over Long Island.
Three years earlier, in 1993, terrorists drove a bomb into the World Trade Center.
Just over a year ago, Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma.
Now the mid-air explosion of TWA 800 is also being linked to terrorism.
It was all over the news, how people thought they saw something going up to hit an aircraft.
A lot of 'em thought they saw missiles.
There were a lot of people that wanted to do us harm back in 1996, a lot, and the FBI and other people on the national security front believed it was an act of terrorism without question.
I'm sure this was a bomb and that we'll find the evidence of that in this wreckage.
- Just keep me posted.
- Alright.
We'll go through it.
Jim Kallstrom has a strong personality.
And even though he didn't say he's in charge, you got the impression from him that he was really running the show.
Well, you know, I'd be lying to you if I didn't tell you there was some professional tension and there always is.
Alright, let's get to it.
We tried to keep an open mind as much as possible and that would mean considering something like a missile until we had some honest proof that that did not occur.
Excuse us.
Seven days into the investigation, the ocean salvage team makes a major find - the black boxes.
Recovering the CVR and the FDR is very important in every investigation.
The trouble is, you never know what you're gonna get.
We sent them immediately down to Washington, DC, to be read out after we found them.
Technicians are able to recover the data, but it gives investigators little to go on.
They hear no cockpit alarms or signs of panic from the crew.
Normal conversations in the cockpit.
Normal readouts on the flight data recorder up until the point where a sharp noise was heard and then nothing after that.
NTSB investigators spend weeks carefully searching for any sign of foul play.
They study wreckage from almost every part of the 230ft-long plane.
Pretty much during the whole time we were there, we were looking for something that would support any kind of missile or a bomb.
They find no signs of an explosive device.
No pitting.
No cratering.
We didn't find the soot patterns in a radiating pattern that might have been from a bomb.
We didn't find this micro-cratering where a hot piece of metal are impacting other pieces of metal.
It wasn't a bomb.
No piece had any evidence of a bomb, at all.
Investigators know the plane exploded in mid-air, but they are convinced this was not a terrorist act.
In a way, it made the Safety Board's job much more difficult because we had to now determine what happened if there was no bomb or missile that caused the aeroplane to come down.
They hope an analysis of the debris field can provide some answers.
In an in-flight breakup, whatever comes off first may have something to do with the origin of the problem.
They divide the ocean crash site into three zones.
The Red Zone, nearest the airport, is where the first pieces of wreckage hit the water.
The Yellow Zone is where the front third of the aeroplane landed.
The Green Zone contains everything else.
Investigators scour the debris from the Red Zone.
We had to take these pieces and develop a sequence that showed that these pieces would have been the first ones that came off.
What is this thing? Can we get a closer look at this? The wreckage recovery started to teach us some things.
They check Boeing schematics to try to identify exactly what part of the plane they're looking at.
A keel beam from the centre wing section of the plane.
Well, the keel beam runs underneath the wing centre section fuel tank and back through the landing gear compartment.
They pore through other Red Zone wreckage, feeling that they may be on the cusp of a breakthrough.
Give me a hand with this.
They soon find pieces with tell-tale scorch marks.
It had actual heat damage that had compressed it and wrinkled it.
The scorch marks and damage point to an explosion.
Now they must determine where it came from.
A piece of span-wise beam from the centre wing fuel tank.
In the same place we found the keel beam.
It's a discovery that changes the direction of the entire investigation.
I think this could be it.
The explosion must have started somewhere inside the fuel tank.
Our first pieces came from inside of the centre wing fuel tank, and I mean right in the heart of it.
Ollie! The NTSB are certain they're making progress.
But five weeks into their investigation .
the FBI makes a shocking announcement.
As a result of scientific analysis conducted by federal examiners, microscopic explosive traces of unknown origin have been found relating to TWA flight 800.
One of our problems right from the beginning of this is that the FBI and others didn't have the experience that we had and they were thinking bombs, missiles, and all sorts of other bad things.
The statement directly contradicts the evidence found by the NTSB.
I knew for a fact that this was not caused by a bomb on the aeroplane.
The FBI tests show traces of RDX and PETN, chemicals used to make plastic explosives, the same chemicals used in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 eight years earlier.
For the FBI, the evidence points in just one direction.
You know, we represent the American people, you know, so we don't speculate.
We try not to speculate about it but, yes, my gut said it was an act of terrorism.
There's a chance - in our view, a good chance - but there's a chance this is a criminal act.
This is an act of terrorism.
The NTSB employs the nation's best air crash investigators.
Suddenly, it seems their work is in question.
My thoughts about the fact that the criminal aspect kept coming up over and over, it was frustrating.
With their reputation on the line, they decide to attempt something that has never been done before.
We're gonna put all this back together again.
We're gonna rebuild the entire plane.
They hope to reconstruct the entire downed 747 piece by shattered piece.
It may be the only way to prove to the world that TWA 800 suffered no bomb damage anywhere.
It will be a Herculean task.
There's a picture taken from above in the hangar of all these pieces laid out on the floor and there are literally tens of thousands of them, and it really looks like an impossible job.
NTSB investigators believe it was an exploding fuel tank that took down TWA 800.
But they still don't know what sparked the blast.
If you find evidence of an explosion in a fuel tank, you have to look for what could cause an explosion to start in there and you work backwards.
We need to prove three things - the fuel was flammable, the explosion has to be powerful enough to rupture the tank and, finally, something created the spark to ignite the fuel.
Let's start with the first one, flammability.
Jet fuel in its liquid form is not flammable, but when heated, the fuel starts to vaporise.
When combined with oxygen already present in the tank, this vapour can become highly flammable.
At the altitude where TWA 800 exploded, almost 14,000ft, jet fuel needs to reach 96 degrees Fahrenheit before it can ignite.
There's just one problem.
The manufacturer said, "Well, it never gets that hot in there.
" According to Boeing, the fuel tanks housed inside the wings would never get hot enough for the fuel to vaporise.
On the day of the fatal flight, the temperature at JFK Airport hit 87 degrees Fahrenheit, well below the flashpoint for jet fuel.
The NTSB's theory may be in trouble.
Investigators examine the design schematics of the aircraft.
An intriguing detail catches their eye.
I remember learning that the placement of the air-conditioning units were underneath the centre tank and those generate a fair amount of heat.
They cool the aircraft, but the packs themselves get quite hot during that procedure.
On TWA 800, the air-conditioning units were working extra hard to keep the cabin cool on a hot evening.
The air-conditioning packs underneath the centre wing fuel tank had been operating for, I believe, several hours prior to take-off.
And we all looked at each other and thought, "Boy, is that design correct?" I wonder.
Could heat from the units have boosted the temperature inside the tanks to a dangerously high level? There's only one way to find out.
Air-conditioning on.
We had to prove to ourselves that the temperature inside the tank would be flammable, because if we couldn't prove that, how was it gonna explode? The only way we were going to determine the actual conditions inside the fuel tank was by performing a flight test.
They decide to reproduce the exact conditions of the accident flight.
Alright, let's start it up.
The same type of plane, the same fuel load and, most importantly, exactly the same air conditioning units.
We preheated the centre wing tank fuel by running the packs for hours.
Boeing engineers installed, oh, gosh, it must have been two or three dozen different types of sensors inside the tank, probes to measure temperature, pressure, vibration.
It's a risky undertaking, filled with uncertainties.
We knew that one of the requirements to have a fuel air explosion inside the tank would be a high temperature, but we didn't know how high the temperature got inside a tank.
The test flight reaches the same altitude as TWA 800.
Holy crow.
The temperature readings are terrifying.
These air-conditioner packs were getting up to 350 degrees.
350 degrees is about what you turn your oven to, to bake a chicken.
This is off the charts.
The temperature in the tank hits 127 Fahrenheit, 30 degrees above the flashpoint.
It was a bit disconcerting because we were, in a sense, in an aircraft that was identical to the accident flight.
Now, if you're gonna ask me whether I would do it again, I'd probably say no.
Let's get back down to the ground.
Investigators are now certain the fuel in the tanks of TWA 800 did become flammable.
But before they can take the next step in their investigation, another media firestorm hits.
154 people living in the Long Island area, where the missile testing was going on, saw one or two missiles rising in the air and a number of them saw an explosion in the air.
President John F Kennedy's former press secretary, Pierre Salinger, claims he has proof that a missile hit TWA 800 and that the missile was fired by the US Navy.
The missile fired down TWA 800.
Journalist Pierre Salinger releases unverified radar images showing a foreign object in the night sky.
He claims the USS 'Normandy', a guided missile cruiser, accidentally targeted the 747.
No matter how far-fetched the claim may seem, the FBI must investigate.
We had to look at the military because the military has assets to shoot down aircraft.
As the head of the office, I wouldn't take anything off that board till someone could prove to me that that wasn't the cause, or couldn't have been the cause.
While the FBI examines Salinger's extraordinary claim, NTSB investigators continue reconstructing the downed plane.
They hope the task will ultimately put the missile theory to rest.
At the same time, they work to prove their own theory, that the explosion started in the tank.
So, we've proved flammability.
Now for the second challenge.
Can the tank rupture? One of the contentions from the industry was that, if we had an explosion in the fuel tank, the aeroplane was so strong, it would contain it.
It wouldn't be a problem.
We wouldn't structurally fail the fuel tank or the fuselage.
According to Boeing, the tanks can withstand up to 25lb per square inch of pressure.
Investigators need to know if the TWA blast could have exceeded those limits.
They rig up a scale model of the centre wing fuel tank.
We did some, what we call quarter-scale testing of different fuel/air mixtures.
We built a replica one-fourth of the size of the fuel tank with baffles and everything in it like the fuel tank.
Levels good? They fill the tank with the same ratio of jet fuel as on TWA 800.
Then they heat it to the same temperature.
The results are clear.
The study showed that if the fuel/air vapour mixture was ignited that it could generate more than 50lb of force per square inch.
It creates double the amount of explosive force the tank was designed to withstand.
The tank simply wasn't strong enough to contain the full-scale explosion.
I think this tells us what we need to know.
NTSB investigators need one last critical element of proof before they can be absolutely certain what caused one of the worst air disasters in US history.
Once we determined that the fuel tank became hot enough to sustain a flame and once we determined that the fuel tank itself was not strong enough to contain an explosion, we needed to try to figure out an ignition source.
While the NTSB is confident they're on the right track, the FBI is seeing signs that the Navy missile theory won't hold up.
You know, one of the first things I did in talking to the Pentagon was to ask them to give me all military assets.
So there's no way anything was fired from that ship.
That's helpful.
Thank you.
We interviewed the entire crew.
We looked at all their ordinance that was on the ship that day and, of course, we also found out that TWA flight 800 was not in the range of the USS 'Normandy', so case closed.
Though Pierre Salinger's controversial theory is now discredited, it continues to gain traction in the media and among the general public.
The Navy is a suspect.
The Navy is a suspect.
Why shouldn't they be involved in the investigation? The monumental reconstruction of TWA 800 might be the only way to put all the rumours to rest.
But as the complex crash investigation drags on, there are growing fears that another disaster could be just around the corner.
It became kind of obvious to most of us that the fuel tank had exploded and that, I think, gave us a sense of urgency because, if it happened one time, it could happen again.
We've proven the first two.
Now we're at the final, most important condition.
The final question that we had to answer was, "What caused the spark?" We knew it was flammable.
We knew the tank was destroyed, but we didn't know where the spark started.
Without a spark, there wouldn't be an explosion in the first place.
You rule items out until you're left with some core potential causes to look at.
It's kind of the Sherlock Holmes approach.
We spent months and months eliminating potential ignition sources.
We looked at whether something may have come in through the vent system such as a stroke of lightning.
Some folks thought that perhaps a meteorite had struck the aircraft.
More than a year after the crash, investigators still don't know what could have caused a spark in the centre wing fuel tank.
In desperation, they turn to something they thought was a dead end.
How about the CVR? Let's go back to the CVR.
When investigators first listened to the cockpit recording, they didn't hear anything that might explain the explosion.
They decide to listen to it again.
Maybe we've missed something.
Everybody listen closely.
Play it.
TWA 800, amend the altitude.
Maintain 13,000.
13,000 for now.
- TWA 800, OK.
Stop climb at 13,000.
- Stop climb 13,000.
It was a pretty nonchalant take-off and climb.
Fuel 179.
Estimated time of arrival 6:28am.
And the only thing that was a little bit different was one of the crew members mentioned that the fuel flow indicator was erratic.
Look at that crazy fuel flow indicator there on number four.
And he only mentioned it once and then it apparently calmed down and they kept climbing.
The aeroplane has a half-dozen electrical generators and it has all sorts of fans and motors and pumps that use this electricity.
The background noise captured by the cockpit voice recorder is kind of like a static hum.
Play that back.
Let me see that waveform.
Blow it up.
In the last one second of the flight before the explosion, we had two dropouts in that background noise, that background hum on the CVR recording.
That electrical noise had gone somewhere.
Investigators are on the cusp of a major discovery.
There was a short circuit somewhere in the plane's wiring.
A short circuit is an abnormal connection between points of an electrical circuit where current is not supposed to flow.
The dropout on the CVR can only be explained by this type of fault.
We knew we had a short circuit somewhere.
What we did not know is where the energy came from specifically.
They begin the enormous task of examining all of the 747's wiring.
We had 180 miles of wire to work with.
We had wire all over that hangar.
After hours of examining the plane's wiring, investigators begin to notice a disturbing pattern.
The condition of these wires is abysmal.
We had cracks in the insulation.
We had chafes.
When it was discovered that these wires were brittle and falling apart, basically, and shouldn't have been, that was very important.
Let's see the fuel indicator system.
They check wiring schematics to see where the wires for various aircraft systems are routed, including the fuel system.
The fuel quantity indicating system has an extensive amount of wiring in the fuel tanks.
Following the wiring, investigators make a stunning discovery.
That's crazy.
The discovery of bundled wires in a crumbling electrical system is a major step in the NTSB's search for a deadly spark.
In going to the cockpit, the fuel quantity wiring is tied into bundles with wiring that go to the aircraft lights and all sorts of other aircraft systems.
Those wires carry a ton of energy.
These cabin light wires, they were up to 350 volts peak and they were co-routed with these five-volt DC low-power wires that went to the fuel quantity probes in the fuel tank.
If you have cross currents into these wires, it sets you up for something drastic could easily happen.
This was certainly a short circuit.
It was more than enough to create a short circuit that would go into the fuel tank and ignite the vapours.
And now we have all the conditions for a fuel tank explosion.
The full sequence of events is now clear.
While idling at the gate for 2.
5 hours, the air-conditioning system heats the fuel in the centre wing tank.
The liquid fuel turns to vapour, its temperature rising well above the 96-degree ignition point.
The flammable fuel and air mixture is a disaster waiting to happen.
All it needs is a spark.
In the plane's ageing electrical system, high-voltage wires are bundled with low-voltage ones.
Some are so worn, they can short circuit.
High voltage surges where it was never designed to go.
Look at that crazy fuel flow indicator there on number four.
In the blink of an eye, deadly voltage reaches the fuel probe inside the centre wing tank.
And then it blew up.
Talk to me! What do you have for us? The NTSB's explosion theory is now rock-solid, and their ambitious reconstruction of TWA 800 is finally complete.
There were thousands and thousands of parts on this very sturdy structure.
It was an amazing thing for us to see.
I was really pretty proud of the definitive nature in which we were able to show where the aeroplane's breakup began.
The FBI finally agree with the NTSB on what happened to TWA 800.
It brought us to the conclusion the centre fuel tank blew up, which was a huge finding, and we were very, very confident and, to a very high level, that that was true.
People have said that the FBI should have pulled out sooner, but it's their business.
They can do what they want.
They have guns so It was a nice feeling when they eventually said, "You guys were right.
" After more than four years of investigation, the NTSB recommends in its official report that all Boeing 747s undergo a review and repair of older wiring.
Significant design modifications are also advised, including the addition of insulation between the fuel tanks and the air-conditioning system.
Though investigators have found the cause of the TWA 800 disaster, one question lingers.
How did bomb residue get on the wreckage? We think that the residue probably was placed on there during the wreckage recovery.
A lot of military folks were out helping us.
Perhaps that residue came off boots, or clothing or something like that, and eventually, the FBI agreed.
Investigators also believe that witnesses who thought they saw a missile were actually seeing the flaming remains of the plane ascending skyward.
The fuel in the wings still kept the engines going for some time.
So they did see things going up but they were looking at TWA coming apart.
The conspiracy-type people were still out there saying we were wrong.
We knew we were right.
And I got tired of arguing with people who had their minds made up.
So I just turned away from TWA and didn't talk about it for a long time.
TWA 800 was the most complex, hardest investigation that I had ever been involved in.
I'm just glad we had the expertise to get through it all.
Even though it took quite a while, we think all the effort and all the complications involved were well worth it.
We had ceremonies out in Long Island every year for a while.
You know, those were very emotional things so that's what I'll always remember.
Captioned by Ai-Media ai-media.