In the summer months of 1996, a shocking aviation incident occurred off the northeastern coast of the United States that rocked the nation, and federal investigators were intently focused on determining its cause.
At approximately 8:30 PM on July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747-131 trans-Atlantic passenger plane had been flying over East Moriches, New York when it exploded and crashed into the ocean. Initially, there had been concern that the incident was caused by terrorist activity, although investigators later determined that there was no evidence supporting such conclusions.
Despite this, early accounts provided by witnesses who saw the plane explode helped to foment such concerns, and many involved in the investigation had considered whether there might have been a missile or other projectile involved, possibly fired from a raft or small watercraft in Long Island Sound.
FBI documents from the investigation that were later made available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act help to convey why this belief prevailed early on. In a document dated July 21, 1996, the following details were given by a resident of Westhampton, New York, who observed an unusual object ascending from the bay shortly before the blast occurred:
[REDACTED] was interviewed at [REDACTED] Westhampton, New York. After being advised of the identities of the interviewing agents and the nature of the interview, [REDACTED] provided the following information:
On the evening of July 17, 1996, [REDACTED] was at the WESTHAMPTON YACHT SQUADRON on an outside covered porch. Between 8:30 and 8:45 p.m., [REDACTED] saw what she initially thought was a boat flare. She saw the flare when it was already at a midpoint in the sky. She was facing south overlooking Moriches Bay and Dune Road. As [REDACTED] faced south, she estimated that the flare would have been at about 11:00. She did not see where the flare originated from, but thought that it was as close as the bay.
The flare continued ascending for about 3 seconds, but [REDACTED] took her eyes off of it as she looked [f]or a boat in the bay which she thought may have sent up flare. The flare was red-orange in color with white in the middle, elongated in shape like a ball bat, but more squat. [REDACTED] did not see any smoke or anything trailing the flare, but advised that she was focusing on the light. The light seemed to be moving away from her, as if further south.
As the flare ascended, it suddenly turned a deeper orange, and got larger, but not exactly round in shape. [REDACTED] did not hear anything at that point. Slowly, the entire body of fire descended and became more misformed in shape. [REDACTED] described the shape as being like a “pulled tooth”. [REDACTED] described the fire to descend into the bay, but lost sight of it as it descended much farther south beyond Dune Road. There was a smoke trail following the fire mass as it descended downward.
Paul Angelides, a consulting engineer who observed the crash, also described having first seen an ascending object that he likened to a boat flare:
The object was quite high in the sky… and was slightly to the west and off shore of my position. At first it appeared to be moving slowly, almost hanging and descending, and was leaving a white smoke trail. The smoke trail was short and the top of the smoke trail has a clockwise, parabolic shaped hook towards the shore. My first reaction was that I was looking at a marine distress flare which had been fired from a boat.
Angelides, who later provided a statement to the FBI, said that when the agents questioned him, they specifically asked him about the “missile” he had seen.
According to journalist Reed Irvine writing for the New York Post, one of the many witnesses who believed they had actually seen a missile ascending toward TWA Flight 800 was also an FBI agent.
“There were eyewitnesses on boats who were even closer,” Irvine wrote in August 1998. “One was an FBI agent, George Gabriel, who reported that a missile had brought down the plane. Most of them saw a missile that was launched from a point estimated to be only a mile or two offshore, and some of them both saw it and heard its sonic boom.”
Irvine went on to note that the eyewitness testimonies of several individuals who observed an object ascending toward TWA Flight 800 had essentially been discounted by the FBI, despite one of their own agents having observed the mystery object.
“Even if all those people were accurate in their observations only one time out of ten, the probability that they had seen something ascending would be virtually 100 percent, but the FBI and NTSB dismissed their testimony as invalid,” Irvine argued, noting that the agencies based their dismissal on the claim that the closest witnesses were more than 10 miles away from the area where the crash occurred.
“That is false,” Irvine wrote. “The crash site was seven nautical miles south of the barrier island, where many of the eyewitnesses were located.” Despite these early eyewitness accounts, the missile theory was roundly rejected by the FBI and NTSB investigators, who included that the explosion originated from within the center wing fuel tank aboard TWA Flight 800.
An official report from the Naval Air Warfare Center, Weapons Division, presented its conclusion as follows:
No conclusive evidence of missile impacts exists on any of the recovered wreckage of TWA flight 800. No evidence of high-velocity fragment impacts exists, which indicates a live warhead did not detonate within or near the exterior of the aircraft... The possibility that a shoulder-launched missile was launched at TWA flight 800, failed to intercept it, self-destructed in close proximity, and initiated the breakup of the aircraft is highly improbable.
Regardless, several independent civilian investigators continued to examine the possibility that a projectile was involved, based on the number of sightings involving the ascending object moments before the crash occurred. The Associated Retired Aviation Professionals (ARAP), a group founded by retired Navy pilot William Donaldson, continued to collect reports of additional incidents from around the area that occurred in the months before and after the TWA Flight 800 crash.
On June 26, 1996 at 10:29 PM, TWA Flight 848, en route to Rome after leaving JFK International Airport had passed south of Shinnecock Inlet on Long Island, as the U.S. Coast Guard began receiving reports of what looked like “bright flares” that were being launched into the sky within twenty miles of the aircraft.
Later that year on November 16, 1996, at 9:25 PM, the copilot of Pakistan International Airlines Flight 712 observed an orange, illuminated object as it passed from left to right approximately 3-4 miles ahead of his aircraft. Captain W. Shah contacted Boston ATC to verify whether any military operations were underway at the time. ATC officials in Boston confirmed a pair of objects in the vicinity on their radar, which were not identified. A nearby TWA crew, in response to the sighting, nearly averted their flight to return to JFK, but instead requested a path diversion in order to avoid the area where the illuminated ascending object had been seen. Additional testimony was later provided by the pilot of Flight 1504 out of Fort Lauderdale, who observed the object ascending while on his way to Logan International Airport, Boston, on the same evening.
Theories regarding a missile reemerged again in 2013, when a team of six investigators that included two NTSB accident investigators, a chief medical examiner, the senior medical forensics examiner, and others were featured in TWA Flight 800, a documentary that alleged that the FBI had covered up key information about the crash. One NTSB Senior Investigator, Hank Hughes, even stated in the documentary that he believed FBI agents had gone into an area where he was analyzing wreckage, and possibly tampered with it late at night.
Although the official explanation for the TWA Flight 800 incident remains that the blast occurred from within the plane itself, the fact that so many witnesses observed flare or missile-like objects over Long Island Sound around the time of the incident—and even on the night of the crash—remains a point of concern. Questions over whether there is indeed more to the story remain, and in light of this, perhaps the many concerning eyewitness accounts should not be discounted. They may, in the end, point to a more troubling reality behind the events of July 1996 that resulted in tragic crash of TWA Flight 800.