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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES
TWA Flight 800: No Survivors
Aired June 21, 2013 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey. I'm Anderson Cooper.
It was 1996. TWA Flight 800 had just taken off bound for France when the plane exploded and slammed into the Atlantic Ocean. That tragedy, 230 lives lost in an instant, is in the news again. A controversial new documentary is disputing the official investigation that the crash was an accident. The film claims an outside force brought down the plane.
Tonight,the CNN's David Mattingly has this story.
DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Salvaging from the Atlantic option, this was the starting point for seeking answers. After four years of investigation, an electrical short-circuit inside the plane was declared the culprit.
But now, 17 years later, a new documentary claims to have proof to support a not-so-new conspiracy theory about TWA Flight 800.
TOM STALCUP, CO-PRODUCER, "TWA FLIGHT 800": What we do show in the documentary is solid proof that there was an external detonation. We also have corroborating information from the radar data.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The primary conclusion was the explosive forces came from outside the airplane, not the center fuel tank.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would that statement have been in your analysis?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If I got the right one.
MATTINGLY: According to its press release, the film, due to be released in July, is -- quote -- "a stunning expose detailing how the official investigation was derailed."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the agenda was that this is an accident, make it so.
MATTINGLY: All of this put forth by a small minority, members on the original investigation team.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's pretty high-explosive.
STALCUP: Whistle-blowers in this country sometimes just don't get a fair shake. MARTIN: Stalcup's documentary has caused a stir.
But men who helped lead the government investigation stand by their conclusion: The explosion was caused from within, not by something outside the 747.
JAMES KALLSTROM, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: I don't question their motive. I just wished if someone felt that strongly about something like that, they could have brought it to someone's attention, you know, commensurate with the investigation and not wait 17 years until they get their pensions in their pockets and then come out with it.
PETER GOELZ, FORMER MANAGING DIRECTOR, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: Mr. Stalcup is wrong. There is no solid proof, there is evidence whatsoever that supports his theory. He's been chasing a variety of theories for 15 years. This is just the latest. He's wrong.
MATTINGLY: So, who to believe? What to believe? On the 10th anniversary of the crash, CNN did its own investigation.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It blew up in the air and we then saw two fireballs go down to the water.
DAVID MCCLAINE, PILOT WHO WITNESSED TWA 800 EXPLOSION: It blew up in the air and then we saw two fireballs go down to the water.
MATTINGLY: That was the voice of David McClaine -- piloting a 737 over Long Island, a bright light caught his eye.
MCCLAINE: And all of a sudden, boom! And almost instantly, a fraction of a second later, two streams of flames came out the bottom.
MATTINGLY: Another pilot, Captain Paul Whelan, was in the cockpit of a Virgin Atlantic 747. He wrote this entry in his logbook: "Saw TWA 800 crash."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I could see the cigar shape of the fuselage and the windows, and bits falling off, fire everywhere, and it falling into the sea.
MATTINGLY: TWA Flight 800, a 747 like this, was one of several hundred flights at JFK Airport in New York that day. What made it special was what it meant to the people on board.
Missouri sisters Chrisha and Brenna Siebert couldn't wait to get started on their trip to France.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can almost visualize them, you know, on the plane, having a good time and they wasn't going to be any sleeping on the plane.
MATTINGLY: Older sister Chrisha had plans to be married.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I kind of looked at it as their last chance to kind of be sisters and do silly things together.
MATTINGLY: In little Montoursville, Pennsylvania, 16 students in the high school French club and five chaperones were headed to Paris for what was meant to be the trip of a lifetime. These snapshots were taken only minutes before they boarded a bus for the long ride to JFK Airport that day.
Cheryl Nibert's mother took the photos.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She was excited about seeing the Eiffel Tower and taking in all the sites. She had her pictures all lined up.
MATTINGLY (on camera): Pictures, what do you mean?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She was going to stand under the Eiffel Tower with a loaf of French bread.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): And at age 23, rookie flight attendant Jill Ziemkiewicz was following her passion for travel and making her mom nervous.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn't want her to fly. I was worried about it.
MATTINGLY (on camera): How long had she been with TWA?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Five weeks.
MATTINGLY: Five weeks.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This was her first international flight.
MATTINGLY: How was it she ended up on this flight with so little experience?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That was the sad part. She shouldn't have been on the flight, but somebody called in sick.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Jill phoned her mother she was leaving early for the airport.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I said you're going to be awfully tired. It was a hot day. I said honey, you're going to be exhausted. She goes no, mom, I'm psyched.
MATTINGLY: The forecast for the flight to Paris called for smooth sailing, and for 12 minutes, it was.
Clyde Willis, captain of a dredging company boat, was first at the scene.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The water was just burning, and it kind of looked like it was burning maybe two-foot off the water. I mean it was just like a wall of fire.
MATTINGLY: Flames and wreckage for as far as the eye could see. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wings, tail section, cushions, seats, anything that would float really, and then we saw the first body, and it appeared to be like a 12-year-old girl.
MATTINGLY (on camera): Had you ever seen anything like this before in your life?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Never, and I hope I don't ever see it again.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Soon, there were the frantic phone calls. At home in New Jersey, Carol Ziemkiewicz learned of the crash from a relative.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was such a shock. I think it was like being punched in the stomach. I still remember that feeling, like I almost passed out.
MATTINGLY: In Pennsylvania that night -- students hugged and cried. So did parents.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of shock, families here struggling just to, just to even accept what's taken place.
MATTINGLY: With only a glimmer of hope, families called the airport at TWA, desperate for information.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About every 15 seconds I would hit the button, and get a busy signal, and when I finally did get through, a long time later, was, all they would do is take your name and number.
MATTINGLY: Two hundred and thirty men, women, and children. In the first few hours alone, the Coast Guard and others pulled 100 bodies from the water. An alert went out to the FBI.
Jim Kallstrom, head of the New York office, believed the news was about to get worse.
KALLSTROM: I would have bet my rather meager government paycheck that it was an act of terrorism. I think the conventional wisdom just swept through the United States, swept through the White House, swept through everywhere else, was that that was probably right.
MATTINGLY: Believing the nation had just been attacked, an investigation is launched, unprecedented, in the history of U.S. air travel.
Coming up, it is a mystery in a million pieces, with clues scattered for miles, at the bottom of the ocean. The White House demands answers, and gets ready to retaliate.
KALLSTROM: The plane was in over a million pieces, a million pieces.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): The FBI's Jim Kallstrom arrived at dawn the next day at this small Coast Guard station, facing the toughest case of his career, convinced the crash of TWA 800 was an act of terrorism.
KALLSTROM: If it was, then the crime scene really was all of Long Island and a good portion of the Atlantic Ocean.
MATTINGLY: As the fog lifted from the sea that morning, this is what Kallstrom saw.
KALLSTROM: Once you get to the site, which I did, early that next morning, at first light, and you see the debris floating, and you get down close and you get in the Coast Guard boat, and you actually see the bodies still being recovered, and you see the floating teddy bears and backpacks, and then you see them laying in the morgue, you know, the grandfathers, the parents, the married couples, the 2-year-olds, the babies, the teenagers, it's shocking.
MATTINGLY: Dozens of bodies were laid out on the floor of this Coast Guard boat house.
KALLSTROM: It was like getting really slapped with a brick along the head, just to walk in there and see that.
MATTINGLY: Among the first to be recovered, TWA rookie flight attendant Jill Ziemkiewicz.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If anyone could be saved, it would be Jill, because she was, you know, strong, athletic, in good shape, a swimmer. But there was no saving anyone.
MATTINGLY: Working in first class with Jill was Janet Christopher, the senior flight attendant. She was the wife of an FBI agent, close friends of Jim Kallstrom. The husband called.
KALLSTROM: Saying to me, "Jim, help me out. She's on the plane. Janet's on the plane. What's going on?" Of course, I didn't have a clue what was going on at that point.
MATTINGLY: And the scope of the investigation was growing by the hour. The FBI would need to check the background of everyone on board, look at every airport worker who might have had access to the plane, question hundreds of eyewitnesses from miles around. Within days, investigators made a startling discovery.
This is the roof of the first-class cabin. The huge 747 jet had split apart in mid-air, the cockpit and first class section plunging into the sea. Radar readings showed the rest of the plane went on flying for a half-minute more.
(on camera): The final seconds must have been terrifying in the cockpit, just like this one, the instruments went dead. The pilots were helpless, unaware that their 747 had been beheaded.
(voice-over): It was an all-too-eerie echo of the bombing of Pan am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Another jet decapitated, the explosives hidden in a suitcase by Libyan terrorists. Leon Panetta was President Clinton's chief of staff.
LEON PANETTA, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF TO PRESIDENT CLINTON: When a 747 blows up as the one did in Scotland, your first assumption is that this is not an accident. This is a deliberate act. Whether it's a bomb, whether it's a missile, what took place, somebody was responsible for blowing up that airplane.
MATTINGLY: Had the Pan Am flight not been running late, it too, would have exploded over the ocean, just as TWA did, just as this Air India 747 did in 1985. Another suitcase bomb, that one also linked to terrorists. Was TWA 800 the third such victim?
KALLSTROM: You know, my initial reaction was the plane could have been shot down with a shoulder-fired type missile. We had talked about that in the profession for a long time.
MATTINGLY: Hundreds of eyewitnesses on Long Island saw the sky light up.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was a tremendous ball of fire that just burst in the sky.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It looked like a mile in the sky of flame coming down, you know, straight down. I thought it was coming from the ground up because the flame looked like it was shooting from the ground up, if you know what I mean.
MATTINGLY: At the time, stinger missiles were missing from U.S. military arsenals from America to Afghanistan.
KALLSTROM: So the notion that some terrorist could have a missile wasn't very far-fetched.
MATTINGLY: The FBI would spend months and millions chasing that possibility.
KALLSTROM: I think everybody in the government, Justice and the FBI and the White House, to my knowledge, thought it was highly likely it was an act of terrorism, but, again, they're asking me for the proof or the evidence, and we didn't have any.
MATTINGLY (on camera): Day after day, flying is the safest form of travel. Disasters are rare, and when they do occur more often than not, they're the result of human error, a pilot's misjudgment, a maintenance mistake.
This time, however, was not, and that's what made the crash of TWA flight 800 so puzzling from the beginning, so astonishing at the end.
(voice-over): Within a week, Navy divers found the plane's black boxes, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder on the bottom, 130 feet down. But when investigators opened the boxes, they found no answers, only silence in the final seconds in the cockpit. KALLSTROM: The pilots didn't say there's a guy on the plane with a gun to my head. The pilots didn't say anything and the data didn't say anything. And, yet, we had a fireball seen from 40 miles away. That had never happened before.
MATTINGLY: In the first few days, Kallstrom met with the families at an airport hotel.
KALLSTROM: There was just, it was just overwhelming.
MATTINGLY (on camera): What did they want to you say to them?
KALLSTROM: They wanted me to tell them what happened, and I didn't know.
MATTINGLY: By the end of the week, 140 bodies had been recovered. One was Brenna Siebert, the younger of the two sisters from Missouri, a free spirit who once came home with a tattoo on her shoulder that her mother disliked.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I said you realize that is a forever thing and you may change your mind and it's too bad, and I went on and on and on and on to her. And when it happened, the one thing she was identified so quickly was because of the tattoo. And that came back, I kind of laughed, like, yes, Brenna knew what she was doing, I guess.
MATTINGLY: It was a mixed blessing for Helen Siebert when the official notification came.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He said, we found her, and I can remember hanging up the phone, and running through the house, so happy they found her. But, in the same moment, I realized she was gone.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Holy cow.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get an ambulance. Get an ambulance.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Scared to death.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get them back. Get them back.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stretcher!
MATTINGLY (voice-over): By the summer of 1996, the word terrorism was entrenched in the American vocabulary.
(on camera): This was already an environment charged with terrorism.
KALLSTROM: It was absolutely charged with terrorism. We were at a very high state of alert. MATTINGLY (voice-over): Only three years earlier, the first attack on the World Trade Center, the first Islamic assault on American soil. In the summer of '96, its mastermind, Ramzi Yousef, was standing in trial in New York for a separate plot, a plan to bomb American jetliners.
In Atlanta, the opening of the Olympics was only days away. Security officials were on edge, for good reason. This bombing in the park also was only days away. And in Washington that spring, intelligence agents heard death threats out of Iran or Sudan against National Security Adviser Anthony Lake.
ANTHONY LAKE, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I had had to stay in a safe house and be driven around in an armored car here in Washington very quietly.
MATTINGLY: In Saudi Arabia, just three weeks before TWA, a truck bomb blew open the Khobar Towers military housing complex; 19 American servicemen died. U.S. intelligence believed Iran was behind that bombing. Immediately, Iran became the leading suspect in the TWA tragedy.
LAKE: I think our first thought was that, when we got this news, that if it was terrorism, we wanted to especially look for an Iranian connection.
MATTINGLY: Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta:
PANETTA: I picked up the phone and called the president just to alert him to the fact that it had happened. And, obviously, the concern at that moment was that this might very well be a terrorist act.
MATTINGLY: On that first night at the White House, there were discussions about bombing targets in Iran and elsewhere. Kallstrom said the White House was anxious for evidence and answers.
KALLSTROM: If this an act of terrorism, it had an awful lot of consequences.
MATTINGLY (on camera): We could be going to war?
KALLSTROM: Absolutely, if we knew who the perpetrators were.
MATTINGLY: We talked about Iran. Were there others?
LAKE: Of course. You don't want to rule any of them out.
MATTINGLY: Who else? Libya?
LAKE: The usual suspects, to quote "Casablanca," Libya, private terrorist groups, Syria, et cetera, et cetera.
WAYNE ROGERS, FATHER OF VICTIM: There was no reason for it, other than a missile or a bomb.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Wayne Rogers lost a daughter, Pam Lychner, and two granddaughters on TWA 800.
ROGERS: Shannon was the eldest. She was a little doll. She was the lady. And Katie was the tomboy. She was feisty, kind of like Pam in a way.
MATTINGLY: Rogers flew to New York, where the families were staying in an airport hotel. He was thinking terrorism and he says so were many others.
(on camera): What did they want to do?
ROGERS: We wanted to attack whoever done the destruction to us, yes. If it was terrorists in the Middle East, go and bomb them, do whatever we have to. They're wiping our families out. We can wipe their families out.
MATTINGLY: But before long, the White House was starting to question the terrorism theory.
PANETTA: We were not getting information to that effect. Nobody was taking credit for it.
MATTINGLY: Piece by piece, salvage ships were pulling the ruins of TWA 800 from waters off Long Island and the evidence Washington sought was not surfacing. In the luggage bins beneath first class, no signs of damage from the kind of bomb which destroyed Pan Am 103. All four engines were found, nothing to indicate a heat-seeking missile.
Rows of passenger seats, the landing gear, everywhere investigators might expect to find tiny explosive imprints on the metal or bits of bomb material embedded in the plane, again, there was nothing.
KALLSTROM: We had the overhead racks. We had the seats. We had the floor tiles. We had the fuel tank. We had all these pieces and we saw no evidence of an explosion at all.
MATTINGLY: Promising clues turned into dead-ends.
Bob Francis ran the National Transportation Safety Board investigation.
BOB FRANCIS, FORMER NTSB OFFICIAL: Traces of nitroglycerin were found at one point in the cockpit, and it turned out that, you know, somebody in first class or whatever it was had had heart medication.
MATTINGLY: And remember the two pilots, the eyewitnesses who saw TWA 800 blow apart in front of them. Both had flown in the military. Both know what a missile looks like. Neither saw a missile that night.
PAUL WHELAN, 747 PILOT: I was aware from both the height of the ground and the fact that there were no vapor trails in the sky that it was unlikely to have been a missile that brought the aircraft down.
DAVID MCCLAINE, 737 PILOT: I thought there was a bomb on board, that was my initial -- I did not see any missile at all. MATTINGLY: So was it a bomb? Look at this, an electronic display of the actual sound of the explosion. Barely more than one-tenth of a second long, it is the last thing on the TWA cockpit recording.
Seen here on an NTSB computer, at first glimpse, the sound pattern does look very much like the bang that brought down Pan Am 103. It is not. The TWA blast is not as sudden. It does not peak as quickly.
JAMES CASH, NTSB: We could pretty much tell that it was not a bomb right from the very beginning.
MATTINGLY: Instead, the sound seemed more like something else experts had heard before, an explosion in the Philippines, an almost forgotten accident six years earlier.
Eight people died when this Boeing 737 burst into flames while it was still on the ground in Manila. The fumes in an otherwise empty center fuel tank had ignited, right below the passenger compartment.
Now on Long Island, the NTSB investigators were finding telltale signs that flight 800's own center tank had also blown apart.
KALLSTROM: We knew early on the center fuel tank blew up, no question, no argument. The center fuel tank blew up. The question was, and is, what caused it to blow up?
MATTINGLY (voice-over): When we return: the final 12 minutes of TWA Flight 800.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): This was TWA 800, the same 747 seen at JFK Airport in New York two years before the tragedy. This is TWA 800 now. Most of the fuselage reassembled at an NTSB hangar outside Washington, D.C., without the wings, tail or cockpit.
You can actually see where the plane came apart. See those dark smoke marks behind the rip in the plane's body? Ahead of it, the front part is clean. That's where the first class section and cockpit fell off. The explosion was here, in the center fuel tank.
(on camera): I'm really struck by the size. You really could park a couple of cars in here.
JIM WILDY, NTSB: The fuel tank is the size of about a two-car garage.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): The center tank just below the passenger area is rarely used.
(on camera): How much fuel was in here at the time of the flight?
WILDY: The fuel tank was basically empty. I think it was 50 gallons is what they calculated, and it was a residual amount.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Only a thin layer of fuel on the bottom. But the fumes were more than enough to bring down the plane.
WILDY: That's the stuff that can ignite and burn, rapidly burn.
MATTINGLY: NTSB metals engineer Jim Wildy shows us where the blast blew out the tank wall.
WILDY: What happened was it fractured right across the top.
MATTINGLY (on camera): This just takes place in a matter of a second.
WILDY: Very much less than a portion of a second.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): When the tank exploded, Brenna and Chrisha Siebert were in coach, right up here close to these windows.
(on camera): Where were they sitting?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right over the center fuel tank.
MATTINGLY: What do you think happened to them?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd like to think, and I think that it happened instantly. That there was no long delay of knowing what was happening.
MATTINGLY: When the plane starts to come apart, this is where it happens?
WILDY: Yes. This piece we're looking at here is the first piece that fractures away and makes a big hole as it drops down.
MATTINGLY: It's a pressurized cabin. The explosion weakens the structure of the plane. The air pressure inside the plane starts to blow itself apart.
WILDY: That's correct.
MATTINGLY: Things are flying out with the luggage, possibly passengers, as well. The galley area is up here, that's going out, as well?
WILDY: Any structure or any type of things from inside the airplane that's loose, those things are free to be pushed out of this hole.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): The first-class section broke off and fell away. It was unmarked by smoke or fire.
WILDY: There was no soot damage or accumulation on any of these pieces or on the nose pieces.
MATTINGLY: Almost impossible to believe, for about 30 seconds more, the coach section kept flying.
(on camera): The plane is flying without the forward third of it still attached. How does that happen?
WILDY: The airplane has momentum. It doesn't stop in the air just when this happens, so it continues to have its speed, its velocity.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): There was not just one explosion, but two that doomed the plane. See the soot on this wreckage? That second blast half a minute later erupted when the left wing took away, leaking fuel from the much larger wing tank. What created that fireball everybody saw?
WILDY: As the fuel is misting in the air, it finds an admission (ph) source, and this all of a sudden flares up and creates this large fireball as the pieces are dropping to the water.
MATTINGLY: CNN created this animation of what the NTSB describes as the last moments of TWA 800. Only 12 minutes after take-off, the center fuel tank blast rips away the bottom of the plane. The cockpit and nose section plunge into the sea.
For another half minute or so, the decapitated plane flies on, then loses momentum and begins its drop toward the ocean below. The fireball is seen as far as 40 miles away in Connecticut, just under a minute after the center tank explosion. What is left of TWA 800 crashes into the sea.
All those people who thought they saw a flare or a rocket or a missile, not so says the NTSB. Missiles leave pock marks on metal.
WILDY: You see the shredded metal here.
MATTINGLY: This part came from an unmanned aircraft shot down in an FBI test.
(on camera): That little pit that you're pointing to right there, that's no bigger than the end of a pencil.
WILDY: That's right. These are very small particles going very fast. When they hit the surface, they create this pit or this micro-crater.
MATTINGLY: Did you find anything like this in this aircraft?
WILDY: We examined every single piece of this airplane, and not one piece had any of these characteristic signatures of an explosion of a bomb or a missile.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): The final judgment of the NTSB: the tragedy of TWA 800 was not an act of terrorism. Instead, the huge plane blew up on its own, apparently the victim of a fundamental flaw in aircraft design and engineering.
For many families, that conclusion was no less devastating.
(on camera): Would it have been any easier to deal with if it had been terrorism?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, because the end is the same. I still lost my daughter, and that's what I felt from the beginning. Nothing is going to change anything.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Coming up, a conspiracy theory that won't go away.
DONALD NIBERT, FATHER OF PASSENGER CHERYL NIBERT: I've reached the conclusion that a missile hit the airplane.
PIERRE SALINGER, JOURNALIST: I can understand why I want to continue the investigation.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE, FBI, NEW YORK: It was misinformation cubed.
SALINGER: We ended up looking like a moron.
MATTINGLY: Sixteen-year-old Cheryl Nibert boarded the flight to Paris after making jokes with her friends from Montoursville about the stains on her fingers. She had spent most of the summer picking raspberries on the family farm, to help pay for her trip.
(on camera): The minute the plane went down, this is where you were?
NIBERT: Yes. Right over here.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Donald Nibert knows the exact place he was standing in the raspberry patch when the center fuel tank exploded. His daughter was seated several rows in front of the blast.
NIBERT: I see this, and I say, I can't believe that I've let this deteriorate to this.
MATTINGLY (on camera): Why have you let it go?
NIBERT: Because of the memories and not being able to come out here and pick berries when our daughter that was lost was the last one to pick them. It's too difficult.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Instead of berries, we now find an overgrown field that is sewn with doubt and bitterness by a father, who from the very beginning, refused to believe official explanations of his daughter's death.
NIBERT: I've reached the conclusion that a missile hit the airplane. Probably friendly fire.
MATTINGLY: where did it come from?
NIBERT: It came from our Navy.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Donald Nibert was not alone in reaching that conclusion. Less than 36 hours after the fireball flashed in the skies near Long Island, eyewitness accounts of a trail of fire or red light going skyward hit the World Wide Web. That evening, Naneen Levine was visiting her West Hampton Beach home. Her story of a possible missile was collected by Web sites.
NANEEN LEVINE, EYEWITNESS: What caught my eye was the little red light going up, and then all of that fire and stream coming down. MATTINGLY: And compounding these compelling eyewitness accounts was a document also circulating on the Web: one that took the missile theory and added layers of seemingly impossible intrigue. It was a theory of how a Navy ship accidently shot down Flight 800 and how a cover-up reaching the highest levels of government was in play. And it might have stayed simply an Internet conspiracy theory, had it not been for this man.
SALINGER: It's a document that I got about five weeks ago from an intelligence agent in France, and who had been doing an inquiry and had some contacts with people in the U.S. Navy.
MATTINGLY: It was Pierre Salinger, a former White House press secretary, U.S. senator and network correspondent, who went public. Salinger, who died in 2004, claimed to have official proof that a Navy missile shot down TWA 800, specifically naming this ship, the USS Normandy, responsible.
But what Salinger believed to be official and exclusive was neither.
RON DUNSKY, FORMER CNN PRODUCER: I asked him to read me the document.
MATTINGLY: Former CNN producer Ron Dunsky was the one who told Salinger the unsubstantiated document had been on the Internet for months.
DUNSKY: I said, "Listen, I'm going to tell you something. Every word you say I'm looking at in a document that I have here."
He said something like, "Oh, my God, what are you talking about?" And it was a very unguarded moment. It was really expressing his true disbelief that what he had thought one moment was really quite an exclusive scoop was not.
MATTINGLY: But in spite of evidence to the contrary collected by the FBI, Salinger persisted.
SALINGER: It's just becoming more complicated. I can understand why I want to continue the investigation.
JIM KALLSTROM, FBI, NEW YORK: Never the mind the fact that the USS Normandy was too far to even shoot its missiles at the plane. It didn't shoot any missiles. To shoot an air missile from the USS Normandy would have blown that plane to smithereens. You would have found thousands of example of high explosive.
MATTINGLY: Officials at the time called Salinger's claim a distraction that diverted important resources away from the investigation. Bob Francis worried about what effect the confusion might have had on the grieving families.
FRANCIS: If you lost somebody and you knew that you lost that person as a result of an intentional act, that would be tough stuff to deal with. And he said that. He didn't know what he was talking about. He was totally irresponsible, and he was an idiot. MATTINGLY: And yet, even to this day, a conspiracy theory still manages to take root. And for a grieving parent like Donald Nibert, his constant search for answers seems to yield even more mysteries.
(on camera): Why didn't the NTSB find what you found? Are they involved in the cover-up? Is that what you're implying?
NIBERT: That's what I'm implying.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): In the years after the crash, Nibert acquired from the NTSB a copy of the electronic information from TWA 800's flight data recorder. Nibert says when he had it analyzed, he found four seconds of information were missing.
(on camera): When you say missing, do you mean erased?
NIBERT: That or edited.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Coming up next, why won't questions of a cover-up go away? Why did so many people like Naneen Levine see what looked like a missile?
LEVINE: I know what I saw that night, and I know it went up in the air, arced a little bit to the right, and then there was a big explosion.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): That hot summer evening in July 1996, Naneen Levine was visiting the family's Long Island Beach house with her baby boy. As the sun was about to set, she looked out a window toward the ocean when she saw the explosion. In 1996, Levine shared her story with CNN. The FBI interviewed her twice.
LEVINE: The little red dot went up like this, sort of curved, came to just a point where I thought like little fireworks were going to come down, or stay and be a flare, and then, like big, big -- these would be six streams of fire.
MATTINGLY: A decade later, Levine's sketch remains unchanged, and so does her story.
LEVINE: Deep down, I think it was a missile. But I know that it's been refuted. I just know that it goes against what all the other eyewitnesses who saw the red light go up saw.
MATTINGLY (on camera): What do you believe they were seeing that night?
KALLSTROM: I think the majority of people we can come to a pretty rational explanation that they saw the plane coming apart in different stages of this tragedy.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Investigators believe the red light seen by eyewitnesses could have been an intense fire immediately after the fuel tank erupted. The fireball probably came next, as the wing fuel tanks, fuel of jet fuel, exploded as the resulting flames seemed to climb in the sky.
There is an explanation for Donald Nibert's conspiracy theory, as well. When he looks at the flight data recorder information and sees four missing seconds, the NTSB says he's actually looking at a gap that occurs when the recording resets for a new flight. What Nibert sees as evidence of a cover-up, according to the NTSB is normal.
KALLSTROM: The data recorder told us nothing. There was nothing abnormal on either box.
MATTINGLY: Richard Russell is a former United Airlines pilot who also used to investigate crashes for the Airline Pilots Association. It was his e-mail on the Internet in 1996 that turned out to be Pierre Salinger's so-called proof of a friendly fire cover-up.
RICHARD RUSSELL, FORMER PILOT: I have some friends in high places. They were in private industry, but they were -- and interfaced with the government agencies.
MATTINGLY: These friends in high places also gave Russell a tape of a New York area radar showing the last moments of TWA 800.
(on camera): Talk me through this. What are we looking at right here?
RUSSELL: Well, this is TWA 800. The time is 8:29:29.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): You can see the blip that is Flight 800 stop in mid-flight.
RUSSELL: That is a ghost. So...
MATTINGLY (on camera): What does that mean?
RUSSELL: That means that there's no more signal coming from TWA 800.
MATTINGLY: That's where the explosion happened?
RUSSELL: That is where it happened.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): But that same tape also shows other blips. One of them, according to Russell, is the missile.
(on camera): If this is a missile, we're about 30 seconds away from the explosion.
RUSSELL: That's right.
MATTINGLY: How does it take a missile 30 seconds to reach that aircraft when it's so close?
RUSSELL: I have no explanation for that.
MATTINGLY: We never actually see it cross the path of Flight 800.
RUSSELL: We don't. MATTINGLY (voice-over): But Russell remains convinced of a cover-up.
(on camera): It's been ten years. Wouldn't someone have come forward, someone leaked information?
RUSSELL: Somebody perhaps hit the wrong button. Nobody wants to take credit for that.
KALLSTROM: There's some percentage of people that think this is a conspiracy.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Like in this soon-to-been released documentary, which claims to have evidence the truth was covered up, that TWA 800 was taken down by an outside force.
SPEARS (ph): I was convinced that the part had been damaged by a high explosion because of the entrance hole and the exit hole. And sure enough, it tested positive, which I was sure it would do. Positive for residue of high explosions.
Three FBI agents ran in the room in their coats and ties and physically pushed me aside and wouldn't let me hear the conversation. And they turned to me and said the machine has frequent false positives.
MATTINGLY: Spears (ph) said the FBI told him the part had to be taken to Washington for more testing.
SPEARS (ph): And the part disappeared, never to be returned.
MATTINGLY: Spears (ph) and the others claim the NTSB manipulated evidence and ignored questions that they raised.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think Flight 800 is, you know, it's a watershed moment for this country. It was, wow, look what we can really get away with. Even in an information age.
MATTINGLY: The film's producers have submitted a petition asking the NTSB to reopen its investigation.
KALLSTROM: I had a thousand agents on this investigation. And we took the missile theory, the possibility a missile brought down the plane, very, very seriously. You know, at that time in '96, we were at a very high state of alert here in the United States. And 747s don't blow up in fireballs.
That plane is rebuilt, and it sits in a hangar in Virginia. You know, if some brainchild can look at that and come up with some other idea of how that happened, you know, God bless them. But it's been 17 years, and that hasn't happened.