July 17 marks the 10th anniversary of the destruction of TWA Flight 800, the investigation of which represented the most conspicuous and consequential misdirection of justice in American history. This column is part of an in-depth look at the incident, presenting several compelling reasons why the investigation must be re-opened.
On Long Island’s south shore, on a sweet summer eve like that of July 17, 1996, the temperature a perfect 71 degrees, they would all be out watching. They would be watching from their boats, from the beaches, from the decks of their summer rentals.
At 8:30 that evening, a minute before sunset, Lisa Perry enjoyed the view from her elevated deck on Fire Island. Paul Angelides walked through the sliding doors to the deck of his summer rental in Westhampton. Richard Goss and his friends relaxed on the deck of a nearby yacht club.
Also in Westhampton, Mike Wire took a breather from the switch gear room on Beach Lane Bridge, where he had been working, and looked out over the dunes and beach. Joseph Delgado had just completed a few laps at a school track in Westhampton, and he was looking south. National Guard pilots Maj. Fritz Meyer and Capt. Chris Baur likewise looked south as they maneuvered their HH-60 military helicopter in for a landing at Gabreski Field a few miles away. And 22,000 feet overhead, Dwight Brumley, a retired 25-year United States Navy master chief, relaxed on US Air 217 as it headed north to Providence, R.I.
TWA Flight 800, a workhorse 747 wide body, had left the JFK runway at 8:19, made a wide turn to the south, and then turned back east. It ascended slowly to more than 13,000 feet and held there to let Dwight Brumley’s plane, US Air 217, pass comfortably overhead. There were 230 people on board.
The evening of July 17 was not as peaceful as it appeared to be. Not nearly so. In Iraq, July 17 just happened to be National Liberation Day, Saddam’s evil 4th of July. To celebrate, Saddam had made some of his most serious threats yet against the United States. Iran was restless as well. The White House believed it responsible for the lethal bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia three weeks earlier that killed 19 American servicemen.
On that fateful eve, just two days before the start of the Atlanta Olympics, the United States military was on its highest state of home-front alert since the Cuban missile crisis.
Shortly before noon, Washington time, on July 17, the Islamic Change Movement sent a fax to Al-Hayah in London, the most prestigious Arabic language newspaper. The warning came one day after the group had taken responsibility for the destruction of Khobar Towers. It was as serious as a truck bomb:
The mujahedeen will give their harshest reply to the threats of the foolish U.S. president. Everybody will be surprised by the magnitude of the reply, the date and time of which will be determined by the mujahedeen. The invaders must be prepared to leave, either dead or alive. Their time is at the morning-dawn. Is not the morning-dawn near?
As the sun was about to rise on the Arabian Peninsula, it was about to set on Long Island. At 8:31, Dwight Brumley put down the book he was reading and glanced out the window of US Air 217. He noticed “what appeared to be some kind of a flare,” but he realized quickly that this bright, burning object ascending off the ocean was no flare. “It was definitely moving pretty much parallel to the US Air flight, and it was moving at least as fast, perhaps even faster.”
As the flare-like object raced north, bridge worker Mike Wire saw a streak of light rise up from behind a Westhampton house and zigzag south, southeast away from shore at about a 40 degree angle, leaving a white smoke trail behind it.
Richard Goss, upon seeing an ascending object, turned to his friends at the yacht club and said, “Hey, look at the fireworks.” Everybody turned to look, and they all watched it climb. “It was bright, very bright,” says Goss, “and, you know, that almost bright pink, you know, and orange glow around it, and it traveled up.”
Vacationer Lisa Perry, on her Fire Island deck, watched an object shoot up over the dunes. “It was shiny, like a new dime,” says Perry. “It looked like a plane without wings. It had no windows. It was as if there was a flame at the back of it, like a Bunsen burner. It was like a silver bullet.” The object was heading east, southeast towards the Hamptons.
Engineer Paul Angelides picked up a streaking object now high in the sky. From his angle, it appeared to be a “red phosphorescent object … leaving a white smoke trail.” He followed the object as it moved out over the ocean in the direction of the horizon.
Goss followed it too. “It seemed to go away in the distance towards the south, and that’s when I saw it veer left, which would bring it out east. It was a sharp left.”
School principal Joseph Delgado told the FBI he saw an object like “a firework” ascend almost vertically. The object had a “bright white light with a reddish-pink aura surrounding it.” The tail, gray in color, “moved in a squiggly pattern.” From Delgado’s perspective, the object “arced off to the right in a southwesterly direction.”
At 8:31, FAA radar operators out of Islip saw an unknown object appear on-screen and head toward Flight 800. At the same moment, FAA radar picked up something else unusual – a ship of good size nearly right under Flight 800’s airborne position.
The two National Guard pilots in their nearby helicopter now picked up the streaks high in the sky. Said Capt. Chris Baur: “Almost due south, there was a hard white light, like burning pyrotechnics, in level flight. I was trying to figure out what it was. It was the wrong color for flares. It struck an object coming from the right and made it explode.” Maj. Fritz Meyer, a winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service over Vietnam, saw the southbound missile clearest. “It was definitely a rocket motor,” says Meyer.
Delgado saw TWA Flight 800 “glitter” in the sky and the ascending object move up toward it. He thought at first it was “going to slightly miss” the 747, but it appeared to make “a dramatic correction at the last second.” Then Delgado saw a “white puff.”
“From my vantage point,” says Goss, “there was a direct explosion that followed and then after that there was a second explosion that was off to the east a little farther that was much larger.”
Meyer saw a bright white light also. “What I saw explode was definitely ordnance,” he said. “The initiating event was a high velocity explosion, not fuel. It was ordnance.”
“About two seconds later,” claimed Meyer, “lower, I saw one or two yellow explosions, from that the fireball, third. The first two high velocity, the last low-velocity petrochemical explosion.”
“Then a moment later there was another explosion and the plane broke jaggedly in the sky,” says Lisa Perry. “The nose is continuing to go forward; the left wing is gliding off in its own direction, drifting in an arc gracefully down; the right wing and passenger window are doing the same in their direction out to the right; and the tail with its fireball leaps up and then promptly into the water below. The sounds were a huge BOOM! – then another BOOM!”
“You could feel the concussion like a shock wave,” reports Mike Wire of the initial blast. Indeed, it shook the bridge on which he was standing in Westhampton, even at 10 miles distance.
“The sounds shook the house,” remembers Angelides. “My wife, who was on the bathroom floor drying our son from his bath, felt the floor shaking as she heard the noise, and I heard her cry out, ‘What is going on?'”
And then confusion – a hellish, horrific confusion. “There seemed to be a lot of chaos out there,” says Angelides. Now he, Wire, Perry, Meyer, Baur, Goss, Delgado, and Brumley watched as the plane’s fuel tanks exploded, and Flight 800 morphed into what Delgado described as a “firebox” and others described as a “fireball.”
“When that airplane blew up, it immediately began falling,” adds Maj. Meyer. “It came right out of the sky. From the first moment, it was going down.”
Brumley saw the burning debris hit the water and turned to summon a flight attendant. As he did, a passenger in the seat behind him, James Nugent, cried out, “Did you see that too?” Brumley and the others were hardly alone in what they had seen. On that soft summer eve, thousands were watching the sea and the sky. By the FBI’s own count, 270 eyewitnesses saw a flaming object ascend towards TWA Flight 800. Scores of those tracked it from the horizon all the way to the doomed airplane.
The New York Times would not interview one of them.
To rationalize what the witnesses saw, the FBI and the CIA conspired to create an alternate scenario, the notorious 3,300-foot zoom-climb of the crippled 747. The FBI presented an animation of the same to the world 16 months after the crash. The first article in this series and the next reveal how thoroughly corrupt this literal conspiracy was.
Related special offer: