Vertigo at 13,000 Feet

The scene opens like an Alfred Hitchcock thriller: The even-keeled and unsuspecting protagonist becomes privy to information that draws him into worlds where one can be certain of little but the discomfiting fact that nothing is as it seems.This story has three such heroes. Each case is, of course, unique, but there are some common threads, too. In each case the Jimmy Stewart character is a newspaper reporter, and the setting is mid-July 1996. Within a few weeks after TWA Flight 800 exploded in midair off Long Island, the protagonist in each case is told by a credible inside source that the airliner was knocked out of the sky by a missile -- and in two of the three instances the source states that the U.S. military was responsible and that a cover-up is already under way.So what does the reporter do? Does the reporter trust the prevailing opinion in the press and in the government investigation, which has held firm to this day, that "friendly fire" is out of the question? Or does the reporter trust his hunch that his source would have had no rational motive to make such wild claims if there weren't a plausible case to back up the accusations?Making the Hitchcock parallels all the stronger, 16 months after the crash, the mystery remains compellingly unresolved. The prevailing opinion in the press, summarized in last week's 14-minute FBI/CIA video claiming that a missile or bomb was not involved in the crash, still leaves the actual cause of the crash unanswered. So even when the story has supposedly ended, it really hasn't. Those who suspect foul play are left with an unsettling feeling that nothing in the investigation makes sense anymore.David Hendrix was outside mowing his lawn when he got the call. "It was about two or three weeks after the incident," the reporter for the "Riverside" (Calif.) "Press-Enterprise" recalled. "I received a call from a reliable longtime source with very good connections in the [Department of Defense] who said I'd find out that the cause of the crash was 'friendly fire.'"Hendrix was reticent at first to even get into the story. "The plausibility or possibility seemed far out to me," he said. "I contacted my editors only because I felt I should. I was expecting to be told to drop it. Instead, they said I should at least look into it."He did. And in the first few weeks, he was unable to find much beyond his initial tip-off. "I tried to kill the story three different times," he said. But when a photograph surfaced in August bolstering the missile theory, Hendrix agreed to publish the results of his initial investigations in the "Press-Enterprise. "In his first TWA 800 article, Hendrix states that one big problem with the "friendly fire" scenario is that, according to the military spokesmen he talked with, there were no scheduled military exercises anywhere near the crash site. But this wasn't true. Hendrix had been given false information. As he would later find out, the U.S. Navy had in fact reserved vast tracts of airspace, covering hundreds of square miles of area south of the crash site, on the night of July 17, 1996. It was then that Hendrix knew he was onto something. "If they had nothing to hide, why was I being lied to?" he reflected.In the 16 months since, he has filed some of the best TWA 800 investigative stories in the country. In March, Hendrix published the first story on independent investigator James Sanders work. (Sanders analyzed the crash debris field layout, finding "conclusive" results that a missile with a dummy warhead -- such as those used in military wargames -- smashed through the cabin of the 747. And Sanders obtained a piece of seat fabric from along the hypothesized flight path of the missile. Sanders had a red residue from the cloth chemically analyzed, revealing that the residue's composition is consistent with missile exhaust. The FBI maintains the residue is an adhesive.) Hendrix has also published exclusive interviews with several eyewitnesses to the tragedy, including one with National Guard helicopter pilot Frederick Meyer, who saw the explosion from the air.Meyer, a Vietnam veteran who has had missiles fired at his helicopter in combat, continues to assert that he saw a streak of light approach the jetliner, followed by a series of explosions. "I saw the news conference," he told the "Press-Enterprise" about the FBI's Nov. 18 media event. "I saw the [CIA video] scenario. It just isn't what happened. They've changed the sequence of events."Hendrix, who averts interview requests with his wish that he "do[es] not want to become the story," said he thinks the controversy over the investigation will continue as long as the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board continue to act as if they're covering something up."Why haven't the P-3 crew members been made available for interview?" Hendrix asked, referring to the U.S. Navy submarine-chasing airplane that passed within 10,000 feet of the 747 just before the crash. "You ask the Navy that, and they say, 'We can't do it. The FBI has told us we can't.' Well, since when has the FBI been telling the Navy what to do? If you want to end the conspiracy speculations, if you want to end it all, you say 'Here are our answers, and here's who you can call to verify them.'"Joe Brancatelli's story begins at lunchtime on July 18, 1996. As the business journalist outlined in a column last summer for the online travel magazine TheTrip.com, he broke bread with "an executive of an international airline" the day after the Flight 800 crash. Brancatelli describes his source as "Mr. Button Down," a cautious man -- certainly not prone to speculation -- a military veteran with a son who is a TWA pilot. His lunch partner brought up the crash."It was a missile," the source told Brancatelli. "Friendly fire. We kept telling the military this would happen one day. And the bastards just kept doing it and doing it. And now hundreds of people are dead. For years we've been complaining about the military locking onto commercial jets and using them for target practice. We go down to the Pentagon and bitch and they promise it'll never happen again. Then, when it does happen again, the brass says, 'no harm, no foul.' I think they just fouled."To Brancatelli's surprise, the executive then turned prophetic: Notice how the cockpit recorders will show no signs of mechanical failure, he said; notice how the government will discredit eyewitness accounts of a missile; notice how mechanical failure will be claimed -- but without the need to ground or modify any 747s. Most important, he told Brancatelli, "Watch the players. Forget about what they say and what they do. Eventually, they will tell you it's not a bomb, it's not a missile, it's a mechanical [failure]. But watch how the FBI doesn't go away. If it's a mechanical, the FBI has no legal authority to be anywhere near the NTSB. But watch how the FBI will never go away."After publishing his July column, however, Brancatelli hasn't written anything else on the Flight 800 investigation. "I've sort of let the TWA 800 story rest," Brancatelli said via email, "because I really don't know WHAT to think As for [FBI chief investigator James] Kallstrom's rather belated exit from the scene, I'll quote a journalist friend: 'Was I the only one who thought it weird that the FBI went to the CIA for a video to help convince people they didn't see what they thought they saw?'"Scott Holleran is the journalist with perhaps the closest connection to the crash. He was originally scheduled to be on the doomed flight. Holleran missed Flight 800 because his connecting flight was canceled the night before. But as he was waiting to board his return flight home a few weeks later, his flight attendants -- when they heard he and his family had originally been slated to fly on TWA 800 -- confided in Holleran that they had learned that a missile brought the 747 down. Since his unusual initiation into the controversy, Holleran has followed the investigation and the "friendly fire" counter-investigations.In April, he published an editorial in the "Wall Street Journal "calling for an officially sanctioned independent investigation open to the possibility that "a freak military accident" caused the crash. Seeing the recent FBI/CIA video discrediting the missile theories was a surreal experience for Holleran. The video asserted that eyewitness accounts of a missile were actually sightings of the crippled plane after its front section had fallen off. The decapitated plane, they claim, climbed 4000 feet and then exploded."Several 747 experts question that a plane in that state could fly," Holleran countered. "I don't see how a brief 4000 foot ascension of the rest of the plane could be mistaken for a streak of light ascending from the surface of the water."Watching the CIA video was very creepy," he continued. "It's incredible what lengths the government had to go to discredit the eyewitness testimony. It's really unprecedented -- the CIA produced a slick video with a musical soundtrack, with a voiceover, with a pointing arrow that says 'not a missile.' You'd think concrete evidence would speak for itself. But so much of what they're presenting is speculation."One veteran Navy air crash investigator has recently become one of the most vocal opponents of the government's TWA 800 investigation. Commander William S. Donaldson has investigated military air crashes, including friendly fire crashes, for two decades. In his open letters to National Transportation Safety Board chairman James Hall -- on the internet at members.aol.com/bardonia/cdrindex.htm -- Donaldson is insistent that the evidence points to a missile (Donaldson suspects a terrorist organization fired the missile) and that the NTSB is engaged in a cover-up."The ride of the headless horseman may have worked in old New York's Sleepy Hollow, but rest assured, a headless B747 won't fly," Donaldson wrote on Nov. 14. "Mr. Hall's logic would have us believe that a pedestrian killed by a hit-and-run driver in front of 30 eyewitnesses died from unexplained natural causes," Donaldson wrote earlier this fall."He would discount all eyewitnesses simply because the victim's body showed no evidence of tire marks. When faced with the choice of believing Mr. Hall or the eyesight of military aviators, I'll stick with the professionals."

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