On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800, its jets thrusting toward 33,000 feet enroute to Paris, exploded in a ball of fire. All 230 passengers died. Most of the bodies have been recovered from the sea. The massive wreckage, scattered over several miles in rather shallow water, has been reassembled in a vacant hanger near the coast. To date no cause for the explosion has been nailed down. Mechanical failure, a possible bomb aboard, or missile attack are current theories.
Several witnesses along the Long Island coast reported seeing a luminous track heading for the plane just before the explosion. U.S. Navy officials admitted one of their P-3 anti-submarine planes and a U.S. Navy submarine were near Flight 800's flight path that night, but denied any missile testing was in progress at that time.
Pierre Salinger, once President Kennedy's press secretary, at a convention of international airline executives in Caanes, France, on November 8, 1996, claimed a French intelligence operative had passed him a document showing Navy missile tests accidentally downed the airliner.
In New York, officials of the FBI, US Navy, Secret Service and National Transportation Service denied Salinger's claim (Associated Press, November 9). On March 11, 1997, defending themselves against another onslaught of claims re. the missile, government officials responded with "facts, furor and a subpoena." (New York Times, March 12). James Sanders, retired police officer and writer (married to a TWA employee) had told the Riverside Press-Enterprise (May 10) that samples he obtained from the planes' seat fabric showed missile fuel residue (Associated Press); however Bernard Loeb, chief aviation investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board denied the significance of this (New York Times, March 12). Nothing has so far been settled.
Americans are not the only ones to be faced with such a quandary. On June 27, 1980, families of 81 passengers on Flight 870, a DC-9 passenger jet enroute from Bologna, Italy to Palermo, Sicily, were notified the plane had disappeared from radar screens about 9:00 p.m. and was believed to have crashed. The following day some 42 bodies were recovered from the waters east of Sicily. Italian authorities blamed the crash on structural failure.
Several days after the accident, however, Libya Colonel Kadaffi, in a radio address, claimed that NATO jets, mistaking Flight 870 for his private jet, had brought the airliner down with a missile. Kadaffi had not been aboard his plane. Italian authorities discounted Kadaffi's story. Days after the crash, police found a Libyan MIG-23 crashed in remote Italian mountains. The decomposed pilot at autopsy was thought to have died about the time of the airliner's crash.
According to CBS' 60 Minutes (May 23, 1993), "Aside from the Italian air force, both the United States and the French had aircraft carriers in the vicinity, and transcripts of telephone conversations...indicate there was heavy military traffic that night, and that something unusual was going on."
Analysis of radar plots from Rome's Ciampino Airport by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board at Italy's request showed that a second plane, traveling at fighter jet speed, moved into the DC-9's airspace one minute and 34 seconds before the explosion.
The records of half a dozen other nearby radar sites along with records of their duty personnel seem to have been destroyed.
The deck logs of the USS Sixth Fleet's carrier Saratoga, whose four radars were within 100 miles of the DC-9 that night, did not mention the crash, and "from 8:00 a.m. on the 27th until 4:00 a.m. on the 28th, the deck logs were all neatly printed in the same steady hand, even though there were five shift changes," the inference being that the Saratoga's log had been rewritten. (60 Minutes) Several formal investigations by the Italian government and their military had failed to explain the accident.
Thirteen years after the crash, Italian divers finally were able to retrieve from 10,000-foot depths in the Tyrrhenian Sea over 90% of the plane's fragments which were reassembled at a top-secret military base near Rome. Investigators from Farnsborough Research Center in England discovered plastic window fragments had been driven into the passenger's seat cushions, indicating an explosion outside the plane. In 1989, a scientific team concluded that it was an "air-to-air missile." (60 Minutes).
The military of France, the U.S. and Italy have all continued to deny being involved. France was suspect, having been engaged in a shooting war with Kadaffi at that time over Libya's border with Chad. Among the items retrieved from the sea at the crash site were an U.S. aviator's helmet and two U.S. life jackets. Italy's retired Air Force General Roberto Boemio, who was expected to be a key witness in a later investigation, was murdered not long before the hearing. At the time of the CBS program in 1993, no official explanation of the accident had been formulated. My own request for up-to-date information directed to Italian sources with the assistance of Italy's local Consul General and their military attache in Washington have engendered no response. Americans today may be watching a replay of the Italian scenario.
The Mt. Davidson Cross
Christianity, which survived the wrath of the Pharisees and Sanhedrin, the crucifixion of its leader, lions in the Roman arena, centuries of persecution followed by the sterility of the Dark Ages, now in the 20th century puts its tail between its legs and flees the threats of the ACLU, an organization supposedly aimed at separating church and state.
The now-defunct Council of Churches retreated from its support of a lighted Mt. Davidson Cross, pleading cost of litigation, so in the City of St. Francis, the symbol of that movement which gave Christmas to the world may be shrouded in darkness while a Menorah glows in Union Square The bugles of retreat were sounded by the so-called leaders of the faith. The Christian laity were never rallied to the cause.
Though an Irish-Catholic Mayor was unable to manage the issue, now perhaps Willie Brown with the help of the City Fathers might deed that small park with its cross to either the Archdiocese or some Interfaith groups so that San Franciscans will always be reminded of both the origin of their City's name as well as the December holiday.
Correction from Edward Miller: My last month's column contained errors in the last paragraph, which should have read: "Israel's plan to weaken the power of Islam began at Camp David where Sadat was seduced to both split the Arab league and abandon the Palestinians. Sadat was murdered for his betrayal, and after Mubarak, his Vice President, took control, the U.S., with Israel's help, began to manipulate his increasingly corrupt regime. This corruption and the resulting poverty turned the large Muslim community against him. Sheik Rahman who helped lead this resistance was imprisoned here to weaken this Islamic movement, hence Israel's involvement in his trial."