By Susan Cornwell
ASHBURN, Virginia (Reuters) - U.S. government safety investigators on Tuesday stood by their report on the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 that said faulty wiring likely caused the plane to explode, ahead of the airing of a documentary that suggests a missile may have brought down the plane.
The investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said they had ruled out bombs or missiles during their four-year probe into the crash. The NTSB's August 2000 report found the Boeing 747 broke apart and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean because of an explosion in the center fuel tank, likely caused by a spark from faulty wiring.
"I'm totally convinced there was no bomb or missile," James Wildey, a retired NTSB investigator, told reporters while showing them the reconstructed fuselage of the plane at the NTSB Training Center in Ashburn, Virginia.
TWA's New York-to-Paris Flight 800 crashed into the sea near New York's Long Island on July 17, 1996 a few minutes after takeoff, killing all 230 people on board. The missile theory was one of many initially investigated by the U.S. government after a number of witnesses said they saw a streak of light move toward the plane before it crashed.
But the NTSB concluded that the witness descriptions of the streak of light "were consistent with the airplane in crippled flight" after it had exploded at 13,700 feet, Joseph Kolly, director of the NTSB's office of Research and Engineering, said on Tuesday.
Last month, the NTSB announced it was reviewing a petition to reconsider its findings on the crash. The petition was signed by Henry Hughes, a retired senior NTSB investigator who is one of six former members of the crash investigation team featured in the new film about the jumbo jet tragedy.
The EPIX entertainment network says it will air the film, "TWA Flight 800" by Kristina Borjesson, on the July 17 anniversary of the crash.
"I think the witness statements, the physical evidence and other facts clearly show there was an explosion external to the aircraft, not the center fuel tank," Hughes told reporters on Tuesday after the NTSB briefing.
He said the NTSB had wrongly discounted witness statements, radar data, explosive traces and holes in the fuselage that pointed to an external explosion such as a bomb or missile.
Further, Hughes said, there had been irregularities during the investigation - "people breaking into the hanger in the wee hours of the morning" - as well as a lack of cooperation and communication between the NTSB and the FBI, which also investigated the crash.
Hughes said he had raised these concerns years ago and subsequently was moved from the aviation to highway investigations before he retired.
NTSB investigators declined to comment on Hughes' petition on Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the board said that it would be at least three months from the receipt of the petition June 19 before the NTSB decided whether to reconsider its conclusions.
NTSB investigators spent much of the afternoon with reporters on Tuesday painstakingly going over the details of their probe, which they described as exhaustive.
"We covered more than enough. We went to the Nth degree and then some," Kolly said. He said there had not been physical damage to materials on the plane consistent with an explosive device or missile.
Kolly was a fire and explosives investigator in the TWA Flight 800 probe.
Asked about supposed friction with the FBI during the investigation, Kolly said the FBI had conducted interviews differently than the NTSB by asking "leading" questions of witnesses, but that this had not harmed the investigation. The FBI closed its criminal investigation of the crash in 1997 with no findings of criminal activity.
Matt Ziemkiewicz, whose sister Jill was a TWA flight attendant killed in the crash, said he was unhappy about the petition to reconsider the NTSB findings.
"I was convinced by the NTSB findings when the report came out," he told reporters outside the NTSB training center. "Hearing talk of a movie coming out and reigniting conspiracy theories that we as family members heard about years ago is ... opening up old wounds."
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)