Retired United Airline pilot Ray Lahr took his case against the National Transportation Safety Board to a Los Angeles Federal District Court on Monday.
In a largely procedural hearing, Judge Howard Matz added the CIA to the short list of defendants, which also includes the NTSB and Boeing, and advanced the case forward through the system. Lahr’s attorney, John Clarke, expects to have resolution by spring or summer. Both he and Lahr gave the judge high marks for fairness and for seriousness of purpose.
As reported last week, Lahr is suing the defendants to release the calculations they used to conclude that TWA Flight 800 rocketed vertically more than 3,000 feet once its nose blew off from an alleged fuel-tank explosion. He and others believe the CIA created this scenario to negate the stubborn testimony of some 270 FBI eyewitnesses who had sworn they saw a flaming, smoke-trailing, zigzagging object ascend, arc over and destroy TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island seven years ago.
Although Lahr discouraged his supporters from coming to what he knew would be a brief hearing, some 25 allies came to lend their presence. Most were pilots. As they reviewed the case afterward in aviator shop talk, one of Lahr’s supporters had to excuse herself. For her, the case remains much more emotional than technical.
Her name is Lisa Michelson. On the afternoon of July 17, 1996, her 19-year-old son, Yon Rojany, arrived at JFK Airport with a ticket for Rome. Basketball coach Larry Brown had seen Yon play in California and encouraged him to try out for the Italian Basketball League. Yon took his advice. When TWA cancelled Flight 841 to Rome, its agents secured him a seat on Paris-bound Flight 800 before Yon had a chance to call his mom.
It didn’t matter. As soon as Michelson heard of the Flight 800 crash and saw the images of its burning debris, she intuited that Yon had been on board. She called TWA desperately throughout the night and did not learn of Yon’s fate for sure until her niece was able to check the passenger manifest in Paris nearly two days after the plane went down. All that Michelson remembers upon hearing the news is falling to the ground and crying. She credits her other son, Eric, with keeping her going through the ordeal.
It is not easy for Michelson to talk about the disaster even today. When asked what it is that she hopes to get by supporting Lahr, Michelson answers concisely, “the truth.” In her own quest for the truth, she has been called a “nut” and worse by people unaware of the depth of her involvement. Less crude, but even more condescending, NTSB Chairman Jim Hall and the head of the FBI investigation, Jim Kallstrom, made it a point of accusing investigators like Lahr of exploiting the sensitivities of family members like Michelson.
Lahr does not warrant the scolding. The veteran pilot and safety investigator understands the depth of his responsibility to the victims’ families. He would not have dared to invite Michelson if he were not fully confident that the truth is on his side. For her part, Michelson would not have come to support Lahr had she not shared his confidence. Both know that the case will take many turns before justice is done, but they are both in it for the long haul.
“The truth is so basic to living your life,” says Michelson. “When you base your life on a lie, you don’t have a whole lot.”