The TWA Flt. 800 Tragedy: The Mystery Remains

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It's what we've all been waiting for. But it gives none of us what we were hoping for. Answers and a sense of completion are both missing as the National Transportation Safety Board prepares to issue its "final report" on the 1996 crash of TWA flight 800. The plane's fiery demise, in which all 230 aboard were killed, was, it seems, a freak accident — a conclusion that, while comforting in its own way, as it nudges out the possibility of a serious design defect in the 747 model, provides the victims' survivors with little sense of closure.

According to the most recent analysis, an electrical short circuit caused the center-wing fuel tank on the Boeing 747 to explode. But beyond that general consensus, nobody knows exactly why. Except, of course, the rabble-rousers: Federal investigators, who've spent much of the last four years up to their elbows in this convoluted case, bristle at conspiracy theorists' continued accusations that the NTSB and FAA are covering up the true cause of the crash. Early speculation that terrorist action brought the plane down was quickly discounted, but several passengers' family members and a few enthusiastic intrigue-seekers have clung to the idea that Boeing is hiding the truth about the 747's safety records.

Boeing is left stuck in the middle: No doubt fearing a potentially devastating onslaught of lawsuits, they have studiously avoided shouldering any of the blame for the accident. But they are also stung by four years of doubts over the safety of their products, and, hoping to stave off a purchasing downturn, launched their own intensive inquiry into the planes' electrical and fuel systems. While the scrutiny turned up no specific problems, the specter of the accident was enough to spur the company to implement numerous prophylactic measures — such as installing protective covering on wires and tools to suppress power surges — that would both serve to allay public fears and further narrow the possibilities for further disasters.

Robert Francis, the former NTSB official who headed the investigation, applauded the agency's work Tuesday and congratulated his co-workers for their years of work. He also effectively washed his hands of the inquiry, telling CNN, "Certainly, it's not for want of trying that [the cause of the] TWA [Flight 800 crash] hasn't been finally solved." That thought, and the additional safety items added since the crash, are about the only solace left.