Flight 800 eyewitness Dwight Brumley corrects a CIA-interpretation of his observations at a July 2002 hearing (click to enlarge).|
The Flight 800 Eyewitness Hearing
Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization (FIRO) sponsored the first public hearing on the crash of TWA Flight 800 that included eyewitnesses. Eight witnesses testified before a five member panel of FIRO representatives at the July 14, 2001 hearing. The witnesses described their observations and answered questions from the panel. The media and public questioned the witnesses after the panel, followed by a summary of an independent study of 670 official FBI eyewitness documents.
TWA Flight 800 crashed eight miles south of Long Island, New York ten minutes after takeoff on July 17, 1996. Moments before the crash, witnesses observed a streak of light rise from the ocean surface. These observations initially caused FBI agents "to suspect that a missile might have been used against flight 800." Ultimately however, federal investigators concluded that the witnesses mistook the aircraft itself for a missile.
This conclusion was first released in the form of a CIA animation shown during a widely televised FBI press conference in November of 1997. It showed the forward section of the jetliner break away and the remaining portion perform a steep, flaming climb in excess of 3,000 feet. The animation's narrator stated that "this may have looked like a missile attacking an aircraft."
While producing the animation, the CIA considered the observations of 244 out of 670 witnesses catalogued in the FBI investigative database. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) planned to discuss these and other witness observations at the first of two public hearings on the crash within a month of the animation's broadcast. But the FBI intervened.
Five days before the NTSB hearing, FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom wrote a letter requesting that all witness testimony and related discussion be banned from the hearing. On the same day, NTSB Chairman Jim Hall replied with a letter of his own stating that the NTSB would comply with the FBI's request. There would be no release or discussion of witness testimony by any federal agency for more than three years after the broadcast of the CIA animation.
At the FIRO hearing in July 2001, eight witnesses were given the opportunity to compare their observations with the CIA animation. The accounts of two of the witnesses testifying were featured in the CIA animation. The animation contained the vantage points of Dwight Brumley and Mike Wire, from a window seat on a nearby aircraft and on a bridge respectively.
The CIA alleged that both witnesses saw only a flaming aircraft climbing from 13,800 feet to approximately 17,000 feet after a spontaneous explosion caused the airliner to break in two. Brumley and Wire commented on the animation's portrayal of their testimony.
Dwight Brumley: "That's totally, almost perpendicular to the direction I saw...It doesn't even get close to what I saw, not even close..."
Panel member Tom Stalcup: "But Dwight, they're saying this is what you saw. Now surely they must have contacted you to ask you ..."
Brumley: "No, the CIA never contacted me. The FBI never re-contacted me...nobody with any aviation expertise...went through it with me to try to really understand, you know, to get down in black and white--a diagram or whatever--what I had seen."
Mike Wire commented on the relevant portion of the CIA animation while it was paused at the initial portion his CIA-interpreted observation. Onscreen was a point of light above some distant rooftops.
Wire: "What they should show at this time is back behind the houses on the beach...It should have been coming up and across this way [near the rooftops], not starting up there in the sky..."
Panel member Stalcup: "Now the CIA used you as a key eyewitness in their animation. Surely they must have contacted you to help create this animation. Did the CIA ever contact you?"
Wire: "I never knew that the CIA was involved in anything about the case at all. No, they did not contact [me] at all...or the NTSB for that matter."
Wire's FBI witness summary confirms that he observed "what appeared to be cheap fireworks coming off the beach" behind a distant rooftop. However, the CIA animation placed Wire's initial sighting of a firework at the position where Flight 800 lost electrical power (2.6 miles up).
There is no record of any CIA interview with Mike Wire or Dwight Brumley. In fact, Congressional investigators reported that the CIA "did not interview any of the eyewitnesses" in connection with the Flight 800 animation. Instead, the CIA relied upon scant notes and summaries from 244 preliminary FBI witness interviews. The following is all the CIA had to work with when calculating the animated trajectory of a strange flare reported by Dwight Brumley.
"It was moving from 'right to left' and it appeared to have 'peaked,' then it was going downward."
From this single sentence describing "right to left" motion, the CIA concluded that the flare Brumley saw was Flight 800. But the relative motion of Flight 800 outside Dwight Brumley's right-side window on US-Air flight 217 was, at all times, left to right, from the moment it exploded until it hit the water. The CIA animation offers no explanation for this discrepancy.
According to the NTSB, 256 other witnesses also reported a streak of light in connection with the crash. One was Air National Guard helicopter pilot, Major Fred Meyer. Meyer and his crew were the first to arrive on scene for search and rescue after observing the tragedy during a routine training mission.
At the FIRO hearing, Meyer spoke about the streak he saw: "I tracked it across about twenty degrees of azimuth in the sky and then...I saw an explosion. And that explosion was military ordinance. I'll stake my life on it, and I have many times. I have two years in combat over North Vietnam. I hold the distinguished flying cross. I made nine over-land rescues. If I don't know what a missile looks like, if I don't know what flak looks like, I wouldn't be here talking to you. I saw military ordinance explode in the sky that night."
Major Meyer believes the CIA animation does not account for his observations and sent a letter to the NTSB charging them with ignoring eyewitness testimony. The official crash scenario does not account for Meyer's testimony of seeing military ordinance prior to the crash.
Suzanne McConnell also testified at the FIRO hearing. McConnell was eating dinner on her back porch when she saw a flare-like object rise quickly from across the bay. At the apex of its climb, the object exploded and then a fireball descended into the ocean, according to McConnell.
After being shown a slide created from the official CIA/NTSB crash sequence, from her approximate vantage point, McConnell said that it did not include the object she saw travel nearly "straight up" and explode. When she called the FBI to report her observation, she said the FBI agent replied, "'that's pretty much what everyone else is telling us'"
The FBI did interview other witnesses who gave accounts similar to McConnell's. Roland Penney was one of them.
Penney: "There were three or four of us standing on the dock and we saw basically what that women [Suzanne McConnell] had just said. We saw this stream of smoke go up...[and then] it disappeared for about a second and a half...and then we saw a big bright white light....The white light descended down about two seconds I guess and then there was another explosion and then we saw the red flames and we saw the plane break into two pieces."
Penney also testified that the "[stream] was going basically straight up...[and] just a tad off to the west." Without interviewing Penney, the CIA concluded that the object he saw was Flight 800 continuing eastward. But other witness observations matched Penney's, and thus conflicted with the CIA animation.
Darrell Miron testified that a streak rose to the west very quickly before Flight 800 exploded. Miron said, "I know missiles travel much faster than planes do. That was not a plane flying in any direction at that speed."
As the hearing continued, eyewitness Bill Gallager, a commercial fisherman who was on his boat at the time of the crash, expressed his frustration with the way the Flight 800 investigation was handled.
Gallager: "...[A] major thing people should come out of this with today is the fact that seven hundred and some witnesses are being told to blast off...I've never seen a concerted effort to not have information come together."
Gallager saw a strange flare rise upward, originating at a position consistent with the closest (2.9 nautical miles) surface vessel to the crash when it occurred. According to the FBI, this surface vessel "has not been identified." Gallager testified that the flare exploded at its apex, followed by the descent of two flaming objects.
Lisa Perry was the final witness to testify at FIRO's hearing. Perry was on a porch overlooking the beach of one of Long Island's barrier islands. She described seeing two strange objects in the air that closed in on Flight 800, one of which first appeared close to the beach.
Perry: "It looked like a bullet hurling through the air...I don't see any wings on it...there's a redness at the back of it. It goes up to the side of the plane...[then] at that point, it explodes..."
Panel Member Tom Shoemaker: "Did you make a drawing for the FBI?"
LP: "Yes I did as a matter of fact. I made three drawings for them...[The FBI] specifically wanted to know whether or not the two objects were separate and I said they were completely separate objects and that's one of the drawings that I made for them."
At the writing of this article, Perry's drawings are missing. The NTSB, which already concluded its investigation, has not viewed Perry's drawings. Likewise, at least thirty other witness documents are presently listed by the FBI as "unable to locate."
During the investigation, the FBI was "unable to identify" the closest surface vessel to Flight 800 when it crashed and apparently lost three sketches of an object colliding with the plane. Thirty similar sketches and other witness documents were evidently lost by the FBI. The identity of the surface vessel and the illustrated events on the missing pictures may help investigators determine the cause of the crash, which is still deemed inconclusive today.
The FBI and NTSB concluded their investigations without letting any of the 670 eyewitnesses testify. Both investigations attempted to account for portions of some witness accounts, but the witnesses were not consulted when guesses were turned into official crash scenarios and animations. The animations support a mechanical malfunction theory that, according to many witnesses, does not account for a fast, vertically-rising streak of light seen prior to the crash.
The eight witnesses at FIRO's hearing come from varying backgrounds and viewed the crash from different vantage points. Dwight Brumley was an active duty Master-Chief in the US Navy and watched the tragedy unfold from his seat in a commercial jet 6,000 feet above Flight 800. Suzanne McConnell is a Nurse and watched the crash from her back porch. Mike Wire, a Vietnam veteran, was working on a bridge. Bill Gallager saw the crash from his commercial fishing vessel. Darrell Miron is a carpenter and Website producer who was walking on the beach with his wife. Major Meyer was hovering at 200 feet in a Black Hawk helicopter. Lisa Perry was vacationing near the beach on Davis Island. Roland Penney was on a dock. These individuals were miles apart and did not know each other prior to the crash. They are eyewitnesses not by choice. Common curiosity defined their role in the official investigation.
All disagree with the official crash scenario and none were allowed to testify at either of two NTSB public hearings on the crash.
Related Articles and Reports:
FIRO Witness Study
An Overview of Handling of Witness Accounts
Some Available Witness Sketches
Missing Witness Sketch Found!
Witness Portion of TWA Submission to NTSB Critical
Open Letter to the Media Regarding Broadcast of CIA Crash Sequence Animation
1. Mayer, D., Witness Group Study Report. NTSB Public Docket, 2000.
2. CIA, CIA Animation of TWA Flight 800 Crash Sequence. FBI November 1997 Press Conference, 1997.
3. Kallstrom, J., Dec. 3, 1997 Letter to NTSB Chairman Jim Hall Regarding Objections to Hearing Items. NTSB Docket, 1997.
4. Hall, J., Dec. 3, 1997 Letter to FBI Assistant Director Jim Kallstrom Regarding Objections to Hearing Items. NTSB Docket, 1997.
5. Mayer, D., NTSB Witness Groups Study, Appendix G, #571. NTSB Docket, 2000.
6. Traficant, J.A., Report on the TWA Flight 800 Investigation. The Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, 1998.
7. Mayer, D., NTSB Witness Group Chairman's Factual Report, Appendix B, #32. NTSB Docket, 2000.
8. Schiliro, L.D., July 27, 1998 Letter in Response to Congressman James A. Traficant, (D) Ohio. Congressman Traficant's Report to the House Aviation Subcommittee on the Investigation into TWA Flight 800, 1998
9. Schiliro, L.D., August 25, 1998 letter from FBI Assistant Director Lewis D. Shiliro to NTSB regarding missing witness materials. NTSB Public Docket: Appendix EE of Witness Group Chairman Factual Report, 1998.