pointed perspectives and penetrating punditry
|TWA's Family Saga Still Unfinished
by Jack Cashill
It began, like all such romances, even the rocky ones, as a flirtation. In 1929, Charles Lindbergh included Kansas City on Transcontinental Air Transport's coast to coast air-rail route, just one stop out of many. A year later Transcontinental merged with Western Air Express to form TWA. Among the first acts of the new airline was to initiate coast to coast air service - with a one night stand in Kansas City.
A year later, TWA moved its headquarters here from New York and made an honest woman of our fair city.
For the next 70 years, the city and the airline endured a marriage so fraught with separations and recriminations that it would make Liz and Dick's look like Ozzie and Harriet's. Life after the divorce was even messier. If one were to write a book on the airline's later years, most of the chapters would be numbered 11.
And so when American Airlines threw that last shovelful of dirt on old man TWA, just shy of his 71st birthday, the surviving children of that troubled marriage - the workers at the overhaul base, the investors and the retired attendants and pilots who have settled here - mostly just breathed a sigh of relief.
But for all of the public chatter about TWA's demise, many in the TWA family - and "family" is how they have always seen themselves - remain quietly troubled by the one familial sorrow that won't go away: the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island.
Few outsiders know that the July 1996 catastrophe cost 52 TWA employees their lives - a second crew was deadheading back to Paris. No private company has endured such a loss within memory. The grief is real, and the absence of resolution is even more painful.
Many TWA employees have believed from the beginning that a missile had downed the plane. For starters, there were 736 official eyewitnesses. At least 96 of them had seen a streak of light rise up off the horizon. Many described the streak as zigzagging in search of a target, arcing over and blowing TWA Flight 800 out of the sky. Among them were two Air National Guard helicopter pilots who watched the demolition unravel in their face and a Navy NCO who spied the catastrophe from above in US Air Flight 217.
That very night, July 17, the FAA reported to the White House security office that an object merged with 800 on its radar screens just a second before the explosion. Radar also picked up a large and still unidentified ship fleeing the scene of the crash, thus violating the most basic law of the sea. Soon afterwards, the FBI lab found traces of the explosives PETN and FDX all over the plane. All of this is beyond dispute.
Kansas Citian to the Rescue
For a less resourceful White House, a Long Island missile strike - terrorist or friendly fire - might have proved politically fatal, especially in an election year. But, if nothing else, this White House was resourceful.
Two years prior, Pres. Clinton had harnessed the once proud National Transportation Safety Board when he named to its chairmanship Jim Hall, a lawyer and Gore crony from Tennessee. Keeping spin under control for Hall was Kansas Citian Peter Goelz. His experience with riverboat traffic lobbying for local "gaming" interests must have netted him the gig as the NTSB's chief information officer. That or his stint in 1992 as a paid get-out-the-vote guy for Clinton-Gore in Hall's backyard, Tennessee.
Instructive in Goelz's technique was his handling of Kelly O'Meara, a reporter for The Washington Times Insight Magazine. Some time after the crash, O'Meara interviewed Goelz about some radar data newly released by the NTSB itself.
As soon as O'Meara left his office, Goelz called Howard Kurtz of the rival Washington Post to plant a story. Kurtz would quote Goelz as saying "She really believes that the United States Navy shot this thing down and there was a fleet of warships." As O'Meara's audio tape revealed, It was the mocking and evasive Goelz who raised the issue of missiles, not O'Meara. Wrote Insight editor Paul Roderiquez, "In my experience as a veteran newsman, journalists would never roll over and allow government bureaucrats to use them to slime their colleagues. Yet that precisely is what recently happened." Goelz was something special. For his good work, Riverboat Pete was named the NTSB's Managing Director, its highest administrative post.
Report from KC's Plaza
In March of '97 investigative reporter Jim Sanders borrowed the Plaza apartment of a TWA friend to finish writing what would prove to be a best seller, The Downing of TWA Flight 800. Sanders was on the lam. A few weeks earlier, a California newspaper had broken the story of his investigation into a mystery residue on several rows of seatbacks, a pinch of which Sanders had received from a source within the investigation. A lab had found the residue consistent with the elements of rocket fuel.
The Feds wanted Sanders to give that source up. In the best of journalistic traditions, Sanders wasn't about to. So they leaned on Sanders' wife, Liz, a TWA flight trainer and former attendant, to do the same. Still grieving over the loss of so many friends, she refused and took refuge for the next unsettling eight months at a friend's trailer home in rural Oregon.
The source in question was soon revealed to be 747 pilot and manager, Terrel Stacey. Stacey had flown Flight 800 into New York the day before the crash and was TWA's number two man on the investigation. He could no longer endure what he saw taking place. In an arguably illegal move, the Clinton Justice Department had commandeered the investigation away from the neutered NTSB and was, at a minimum, withholding evidence, including all reports on the residue. Oh, by the way, the residue on the seatbacks proved to be nothing but glue. So claimed the government spin-doctors. True to form, the major media never asked to check the results. They should have.
The Glories of the Free Press
When the Sanders refused immunity in exchange for Jim's source, the US Attorney indicted them both. Liz's crime? She introduced her husband, the reporter, to her friend, the pilot. Says Sanders, "Liz was handcuffed with her hands behind her back and dragged through throngs of reporters. Never once did any reporter think of writing a story in defense of a wife of a journalist. That was a low moment."
Jim and Liz Sanders were tried as thieves and both were convicted of conspiracy to steal government property, a law written to ward off scavengers, not reporters. The federal jury, in fact, was not allowed to know that Jim Sanders was a reporter.
To assure tough sentencing, NTSB Chairman Hall sent a letter to the judge. "This is not a so-called victimless crime," he wrote. "These defendants have traumatized the families with the release of misinformation, the only plausible cause of which is commercial gain."
Many in the TWA family, however, think the real misinformation has come from the NTSB. Although the Justice Department had declared the criminal investigation over, it forbade the NTSB from discussing witness testimony or rocket residue at the NTSB hearing in December 1997. The NTSB meekly complied. No eyewitness was allowed to testify at its final hearing in August of 2000 either. This, despite the fact, that a mechanical source of the explosion was never found.
Said Jim Hall in opening the 2000 hearing, "We are certainly fortunate to live in a country where we have a free media and a free press." The Sanders, Terrel Stacey, and others in the TWA family will be pleased to know.
The views expressed in this column are the writer's own, and not necessarily those of Ingram's Magazine.