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NTSB Witness Group
Some of the 736 witness locations within 100 nautical miles of crash site (click to enlarge).

The Eyewitnesses: A Brief Review of Official Declarations


Gathering Data

In the immediate aftermath of the loss of TWA Flight 800, hundreds of FBI agents descended upon the Hamptons in Long Island. Their task? To interview eyewitnesses to the tragedy.

The FBI didn't have to look very hard. At the time of the crash, thousands of potential witnesses were enjoying a beautiful summer evening when Flight 800 went down, just after sunset. The weather, location, and time of year made the crash of Flight 800 one of the most watched commercial airline disasters in history. Before the FBI arrived, many eyewitnesses were already identified and interviewed by the media, sometimes during live broadcasts. A hastily prepared FBI hotline quickly became inundated with witnesses wishing to help.

According to the NTSB Witness Group Study, "in the 3 days following the accident, FBI agents interviewed more than 300" witnesses. Due to the shear number of witnesses, many of the early interviews were very brief, lacking important descriptive details such as bearing lines to object(s) observed. The summary of witness #29 was one such interview, which contains only two sentences describing his observations.

Witness 29 "stated that he was in the Smith Point camping ground on Wednesday, July 17, 1996, and saw a flare going up and then saw white smoke. He said he thought it was just a boat sending up a flare and did not pay much attention to it."(NTSB Witness Group Factual Report, Appendix B)

This interview summary does not include a bearing line to the "flare," nor any horizontal movement relative to nearby structures. As for the location of the "smoke" with respect to the flare, readers can only guess. Also, the origin of the flare relative to the horizon was never recorded, nor was the angle of ascent described. These major investigative gaps could only be filled by re-interviewing this witness. But neither the FBI, NTSB, or CIA ever re-interviewed witness #29 or 88% of the other 735 witnesses.(NTSB Witness Group Study)

The FBI leadership stopped the hard-working FBI Special Agents dead in their tracks, just one month after the crash. Not a single eyewitness was interviewed or re-interviewed for nearly two months (8/20 - 10/14). And from October 15, 1996 to this day, the FBI has interviewed and re-interviewed a combined total of 38 witnesses. This left 647 witnesses never to be re-interviewed by the FBI. But most incredible, the FBI recorded bearing lines from only eleven witnesses--less than two percent of the total. And even these data were acquired from the efforts of a Suffolk County Police detective.(NTSB Witness Group Study)

And the CIA? They based a crash sequence animation on 244 selected witnesses, and decided against interviewing any of them. Instead, FBI witness summaries were massaged into a preconceived crash scenario, which was dependent upon the flight characteristics of a 747 after catastrophic failure (front third missing and severe wing damage).

The NTSB chose to utilize its four years of "access" to the witness accounts by writing studies and reports criticizing the quality of the FBI summaries, while basing their own detailed analyses on these same summaries. The poor quality of the summaries was discussed rather than remedied. Meanwhile, dozens of key eyewitnesses remained available, but were never contacted again. The work of compiling detailed interviews was left to independent, citizen researchers.

A classic example of citizenry doing the job of the FBI and NTSB involves witness Dwight Brumley. An active duty Master-Chief in the U.S. Navy at the time, Brumley happened to be among a handful of the closest witnesses to the crash. He was aboard US-Air Flight 217 heading northward, in the direction of Flight 800 only three miles away when he noticed a "flare" rising from below and behind the US-Air jet, then overtaking it. See the trajectory described by Brumley on this radar plot created from official FAA radar data. After the flare passed him, he saw an explosion near where he last saw the flare, then a fuel explosion he later learned was TWA Flight 800. Master-Chief Dwight Brumley is an excellent eyewitness and was therefore chosen as a key eyewitness used in the production of a CIA crash sequence animation.

But the CIA never interviewed Dwight Brumley. Neither did the NTSB. The FBI interviewed him only once, but asked no detailed questions. Instead, the FBI placed detailed questions into his file that never actually reached the Master-Chief. They continue to exist, unanswered, following his only interview summary in the midst of hundreds of similar, incomplete summaries. Follow this link to Brumley's official eyewitness report (#32) and unanswered questions.

Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization (FIRO) interviewed Brumley on several occasions. Recently, Brumley was asked the questions that appear in his file for the first time in over four years. FIRO conducted this interview, which can be viewed here. As for the CIA animation that allegedly accounted for his observations, see Brumley's comments below this FIRO interview.

 

NTSB Review of FBI Summaries

As described above, significant gaps remained in the FBI witness interview summaries, which caused problems for NTSB investigators. Without re-interviews, all analyses of incomplete witness summaries would be themselves, incomplete. Furthermore, such studies would be subjective, constrained by the sometimes conflicting definitions used by various NTSB investigators.

Consider witness #29, discussed above. In a strict interpretation of his account, the origin of the flare can not be considered to be at the surface, since it is not expressly stated in the summary. But in a loose interpretation, the origin may be considered to be on the surface, since he did mention that he thought it came from a boat, which would obviously be on the surface. Such differing interpretations caused contradictions among NTSB Witness Group studies.

The NTSB conducted a study based upon a loose interpretation of accounts in 1997, and in 2000, one was released based upon a strict interpretation.

The 1997 study reported that "[s]ix said the streak originated from the air, and 96 said that it originated from the surface."

In the 2000 study, "18 indicated that it originated from the surface, 2 reported that they saw it originate in the air, 7 said it originated at the horizon..."

Here, the discrepancies based upon the subjective interpretation of eyewitness accounts are evident. In 1997, the NTSB stated that 96 witnesses saw a streak originate from the surface, while in 2000, the number was reduced to 25 (horizon/surface).

Working with the FBI summaries alone, there is no way to tell which number is more accurate. However, the strict interpretation (25) represents a minimum since it does not account for witnesses who were either never asked or failed to provide this detail. Therefore, it is likely that more than 25 witnesses saw the streak of light originate at the surface. Similarly, the "[t]hirty-eight witnesses who characterized the motion of the streak of light as vertical or nearly so" (source) most likely represent a portion of a larger group.

Other shortcomings of the NTSB Witness Group have been highlighted in a report recently filed by TWA. The relevant portion of this report can be viewed here.

The failure of the NTSB to adequately account for eyewitness sightings, by relying only upon the work of unqualified FBI agents can be blamed on a number of factors. The most serious of which was "an inexcusable absence of leadership" during the investigation (Senior NTSB Investigator Hank Hughes letter to the Senate, 1999). By giving the FBI complete control over witness interviews, many important details were missed and the federal code under which the NTSB was chartered to operate was disregarded.

"Any investigation of an accident or incident conducted by the Safety Board directly or pursuant to the appendix to part 800 of this chapter...has priority over all other investigations of such accident or incident conducted by other Federal agencies." (Code of Federal Regulations, Title 49, Volume 5)

Rather than adhering to federal regulations, the NTSB meekly submitted priority to the FBI criminal investigation during the crucial first year and a half after the crash. However, the NTSB still had an opportunity to correct its mistakes when the FBI stepped away from the investigation in November of 1997. Witnesses could have been re-interviewed at this time in order to gain valuable information not available in the FBI summaries.

Unfortunately, "the failure of the NTSB to obtain and review the witness statements promptly after the accident and again after the FBI suspended its criminal investigation in November 1997, resulted in the irretrievable loss of valuable information." (TWA Submission to the NTSB, April 28, 2000).

 

Data Explained?

The NTSB and FBI concluded that all eyewitnesses observed the accident aircraft, alone. However, Flight 800 was 2.6 miles above the surface and over ten minutes into its flight to Paris when witnesses noted a "firework" rising from the surface. Dozens saw an object rise from the surface before seeing Flight 800 fall in a fiery blaze. In fact, a majority of the relevant observations in both the strict (93 %) and loose (94 %) interpretations of accounts report the surface or horizon as the origin of an initial, "flare-like" object. How then were they explained?

 

FBI:

According to former FBI Assistant Director Lewis D. Schiliro, "a relatively straightforward mathematical analysis does show that what these people reported seeing was not, in reality, what occurred" (7/27/98 Letter to Congressman James A. Trafficant). His letter continues, using logic to show that the eyewitnesses could not have seen a missile.

Below, Shiliro's logic is paraphrased in three steps (A, B, and C). Readers can read his exact wording on page three of his letter to Congress, here.

A) A shoulder-fired missile contains a sustainer motor, which would burn out below several thousand feet. It would then travel the rest of the way to Flight 800's altitude, with no flame visible.

B) Any witnesses who described a continuous flame all the way to Flight 800's altitude, which culminated in an explosion could not be describing a shoulder-fired missile.

C) Since these witness accounts do not describe a shoulder-fired missile, the witnesses did not see any type of missile.

Schiliro's logic is obviously flawed. In less than one paragraph, he states that since a shoulder-fired missile did not the cause the crash, no missile did. A complete failure to consider larger missile systems is evident. These missile systems have a much longer range and would burn continuously to the altitude at which Flight 800 was traveling. Mid- to long-range missiles systems are commonly used by the US Navy and other forces and do not "burn out below several thousand feet." And since the FBI was actively pursuing the "friendly-fire" theory, such an oversight is incredible.

But this logic went uncontested by the member of Congress who received this letter, requiring, once again, intervention of U.S. citizenry. A citizen, independent from the federal investigation, sent a letter to Mr. Schiliro, which asked if the FBI considered larger missile systems and requested more details concerning the aforementioned "mathematical analysis." Schiliro retired a month after receiving this letter.

 

NTSB:

The NTSB relied upon the same FBI reports its own investigators criticized, to present findings based upon eyewitness observations. Instead of asking the witnesses what they saw, directly, they analyzed the sometimes illegible witness summaries in what NTSB Board Member George W. Black described as a "literature review." This review, however, was based upon "biased," "ambiguous," "flawed," "speculative," "vague," "imprecise," "inconsistent," and "contradictory" FBI summaries (NTSB Witness Group Study, 2000). Thus, it contains no more relevant information than that already within the admonished FBI documents.

The end product of such a study will be no better than the original, poor quality FBI summaries. The failure of the NTSB to conduct re-interviews limited their understanding of witness observations to the very FBI documents they criticized. And in an ironic twist, the NTSB speculated over missing details, thereby exhibiting the same offense charged to their FBI counterparts. Witnesses such as Mike Wire were misrepresented by NTSB speculation.

 

Mike Wire:

Mike Wire was a key witness used by the CIA in a production of a crash sequence animation. The backdrop of the animation was his exact viewpoint form Beach Lane Bridge in Westhampton, NY. Wire made the following observations, before seeing Flight 800 fall from the sky:

"[He] saw what appeared to be cheap fireworks coming off the beach [which]...zig-zagged [and]...arced across the sky" (NTSB Witness Groups Study, Appendix G, #571, 2000)

Wire first saw the object at the level of some roof-tops in the distance, well below where Flight 800 was travelling. This object rose from the beach as it "zig-zagged." Later, Wire saw Flight 800 falling to the ocean, on fire.

According to the CIA and NTSB, the object Wire saw was Flight 800. But Flight 800 was never at the level of those roof-tops until it was on fire and approaching the ocean surface. It never "zig-zagged" while allegedly climbing in any crash scenario. Nevertheless, the CIA and NTSB announced that Wire's observations were consistent with the path of Flight 800.

NTSB: "[Wire] reported first seeing the streak of light near where the CWT [center wing tank] explosion occurred." (Witness Group Presentation, D.C., 2000)

Unless the NTSB defines "near" as two miles lower in altitude, then their statement concerning Mr. Wire's observation is false. But could Wire have mistaken the beach for an altitude of 2.6 miles? According to the NTSB he did, along with dozens of other witnesses who reported the origin of a rising "streak of light" on the surface.

But most incredibly, the NTSB and CIA never interviewed Mike Wire. Their conclusions regarding Wire's account were based entirely upon FBI summaries. Once again, the task of obtaining bearing lines and other important details was left to the citizenry. FIRO interviewed Mike Wire on several occasions. We went back to Beach Lane Bridge with Mike and took some bearing lines to where he saw a flare-like object rise from the beach. He told us that we were the first to ever bring him back to the bridge, never mind ask him to point to where he first saw the "firework." He also stated that the official crash sequence does not account for the object he saw rise from the beach.


Typical Protocol

The NTSB's misrepresentation of Wire's account was typical of how hundreds of similar accounts were forcibly fit into a theory that did not include an external object. As for those witnesses that could never fit, given the details in their reports, the NTSB postulated "the level of detail reported by some witnesses does not appear to be consistent with what would be visible to them." (NTSB Witness Group Study, 2000)

They're talking about witnesses like #73.

Witness #73: "she observed an aircraft climbing in the sky, traveling from her right to her left. She advised that the sun was setting behind her. While keeping her eyes on the aircraft, she observed a 'red streak' moving up from the ground toward the aircraft at an approximately a 45 degree angle. The 'red streak' was leaving a light gray colored smoke trail. The 'red streak went passed the right side and above the aircraft before arcing back toward the aircraft's right wing. Described the arc's shape as resembling an upside down NIKE swoosh logo. The smoke trail, which was light gray in color was narrow initially and widened as it approached the aircraft.

She initially thought someone had set off a flare and commented same to her friends...She never took her eyes off the aircraft during this time. At the instant the smoke trail ended at the aircraft's right wing, she heard a loud sharp noise which sounded like a firecracker had just exploded at her feet. She then observed a fire at the aircraft followed by one or two secondary explosions which had a deeper sound. She then observed the front of the aircraft separate from the back. She then observed burning pieces of debris falling from the aircraft."(NTSB Witness Group Factual Report, Appendix B)

Witnesses like #73 describe, in no uncertain terms, an initial, surface-launched "flare" rise into the sky and blow the forward section off the plane. Their accounts first informed federal investigators that the forward section of the plane separated from the rear. This observation was later confirmed as fact during salvage efforts, when the forward fuselage was found approximately one mile closer to JFK Airport than the rest of the plane. But, these significant observations, verified by official debris field maps, were apparently too detailed for the NTSB Witness Group to believe. Meanwhile, the CIA and other NTSB groups based entire crash sequences on the early loss of the forward fuselage.

Regarding the over one hundred other witnesses who do not agree with the official break-up sequence, the NTSB speculates that they made "memory errors" or were unduly influenced by leading questions. NTSB Board Member George Washington Black, Jr., P.E. went so far as to imply they were drunk. When questioning Witness Group Chairman Dr. David L. Mayer on the final day of the August 2000 NTSB board meeting, Board member Black made the following statement:

Board Member Black: "One of the things that we don't know about these witnesses was what their condition was at the time they made these observations. I noticed you referred to someone at a yacht club on an evening, during the summer. I suspect that I know what some of their conditions might have been. [interjection by Chairman Hall and laughter by Board Member Black] That's a bit of information we do not have since there were delayed interviews." (Witness Group Video Presenation, D.C., 2000)

 

Summary

Like all evidence contrary to the official theory, the witness evidence was spun to fit the federal crash scenario. The detection of high explosives on the wreckage was handled in the same manner. Since their existence can not be explained by a fuel-air explosion (different chemistry), investigators speculated that these traces were transferred to the wreckage inadvertently months before the accident or during recovery efforts.

Witnesses contradicting the official theory were charged with having bad memories, memories with too many details, being easily influenced by interviewers, or drunk. Rather than calling up these witnesses to clarify their recollections, the NTSB chose to formulate their own opinions based upon FBI summaries that were repeatedly criticized by the NTSB Witness Group, all while judging the witnesses' memory, character, and drinking habits.

Observations made by eyewitnesses to the Flight 800 tragedy are forever imbedded in their memory. Many of the hundreds of witnesses are still available and wish to be heard. There is plenty of time remaining to compile a proper database of the eyewitness accounts, and FIRO continues to work toward that goal today.

The section below is especially prepared for the NTSB. It is an excerpt from a letter sent to the NTSB Witness Group by a citizen researcher on January 18, 1999.

 

"The statistics which place eyewitnesses into certain categories based upon the time they began observing the events of Flight 800ís demise must be considered. Individuals who saw the event from beginning to end, by definition, will be the minority among the entire witness list. Their testimony, if confirmed by a reasonable number of independent observations, should call into question any theory which may be excluded by them. The Eyewitness Group is urged to perform independent triangulation and bearing calculations to the above mentioned streaking object by re-interviewing the eyewitnesses. Only after such interviews can the Eyewitness Group validate or contradict the hypothesis that the streaking object was Flight 800 itself.

Family members, concerned citizens, and the world want a thorough and fair investigation into our nationís worst air disaster. This investigation is an historic event to be forever analyzed. It is the duty of the Eyewitness Group to fairly and accurately report its findings, and where appropriate make recommendations. The eyewitness group should not Ďfití the eyewitness reports to a theory, but rather fit the various theories to all observations, reporting which theory best describes all the eyewitness evidence."

To this day, the NTSB has never extracted a single bearing line from any eyewitness. All were "fit...to a theory" that has no supporting physical evidence by a "literature review" of brief and incomplete FBI summaries.



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