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Section: TWA 800 : A deliberate mystery?
Eyewitness: Ordnance Blast Downed TWA
By David E. Hendrix The Press-Enterprise
A military eyewitness to the TWA Flight 800 disaster who was the first rescuer on the scene says the jetliner and 230 people aboard were knocked out of the sky by an explosive projectile, probably a military warhead, and not by some internal mechanical catastrophe.
Frederick C. Meyer, one of two Air National Guard helicopter pilots who witnessed the jetliner's breakup, said he was not sure what the projectile was and did not know its source. A Jane's military expert said Meyer's description of the incident matched that of a missile detonating.
Meyer said he cannot say the object that struck the Boeing 747 was a missile, but is convinced he saw an ``ordnance explosion'' burst near the plane just before it blossomed into a deadly fireball.
Although the ex-Navy officer and Vietnam War helicopter pilot previously had described what he saw to investigators and to the media, he said he was breaking his self-imposed silence on his conclusions about what occurred. He said the reason he was speaking out now was because of FBI and National Transportation Safety Board statements that a mechanical spark most likely touched off fuel tank fumes and caused the July 17, 1996, air disaster. He also noted that investigators had treated him perfunctorily and did not ask him many questions or anything about his conclusions when they talked.
``I'm not a professor with a Ph.D. in explosion-watching, I'm an eyewitness,'' Meyer, an attorney, said. ``I know what I saw. I saw an ordnance explosion. And whatever I saw, the explosion of the fuel was not the initiator of the event. It was one of the results. Something happened before that which was the initiator of the disaster. Everyone involved in the FBI and NTSB are intelligent enough to know that.''
NTSB officials confirmed that Meyer's conclusions were new to them and that he had not previously offered his beliefs to investigators. An FBI spokesman said the agency does not comment about statements of an individual witness. NTSB and FBI official s said there was no physical evidence a bomb or missile downed the plane. The FBI has said it expects to withdraw from the probe soon because it has no physical evidence that would indicate there was a criminal cause.
There have been other eyewitness reports about missile-like streaks followed by an explosion but these have been primarily from people on land or in boats. The FBI and the NTSB have said they believe that the central gas tank explosion was most likel y touched off by an internal event. They have not shut the door entirely on other prevailing theories -- that a bomb or missile caused the disaster --but they have belittled them.
More specifically, NTSB spokeswoman Shelly Hazle said the possibility that an outside object, such as a missile fragment or meteor, struck the plane is among the six crash theories receiving most official attention. Four of the theories center on a spark or static electricity setting off center fuel tank vapors and another looks at a small bomb with a shaped charge under a passenger seat detonating over the center tank.
Meyer, in a series of interviews with The Press-Enterprise from his Shinnecock Hills, Long Island, N.Y., office, said he had not offered his opinions during several brief meetings with FBI and NTSB investigators because he wanted to present facts, not conclusions. However, he chided FBI and NTSB examiners for not asking him any questions during individual sessions, the first two of which he initiated.
Capt. Chris Baur, his co-pilot that night, could not be reached for comment and has declined interviews, reportedly under orders, since shortly after the disaster. But published reports quote investigators as saying Baur thinks he saw a missile.
Meyer said he saw a streak from the west of the spot where the TWA exploded seconds later. Baur said he saw a streak from the east.
Meyer said the accounts are not contradictory if there were two projectiles, such as two missiles or a drone target and a missile, approaching from opposite directions. Meyer said he believes there were two projectiles but said he could only testify about the one he saw. He vigorously rejected efforts to discuss Baur's reported comments, saying that would be inappropriate and would detract from the substance of each account.
Meyer, 57, tells this story:
He, Baur and flight engineer Denis Richardson were practicing instrument landings for Baur around Francis S. Gabreski Airport, a former Air Force Base on eastern Long Island, at about 8:30 p.m. on the Wednesday evening TWA 800 crashed. Meyer was watching forward, southwest, for possible conflicting aircraft. Baur, his head down, was reading instruments. Richardson was facing the side from the left gunner's position to watch for aircraft.
At 200 feet above the ground, Meyer could see the top of the sun as it dipped below the horizon. It was still daylight at their elevation. That's when he saw the streak of light.
''Right in front of me, slightly to the left of centerline, at a distance that I then estimated as 10 miles and an altitude that I estimated at approximately 10,000 feet, I saw a streak of light.''
The light, he said, was reddish-orange and ``had a trajectory of a shooting star: virtually horizontal, with a gradual descending curve.'' The streak lasted three to five seconds and disappeared.
``About a second, and then further to my left, along the same trajectory as the streak, I see a violent explosion, which resembles a flak explosion, and I've seen those. It's yellowish-orange and red in color and it generates a little black cloud of s moke, and the smoke generally congeals above the explosion and above the light. It is a high-velocity explosion.''
Flak is antiaircraft cannon fire that explodes near its target and fragments into shrapnel. Meyer described a high-velocity explosion as ``now you don't see it, now you do.''
``A second or maybe a second and a half later, at an altitude that looked like the trajectory was bent downward a little, I saw a brilliant white explosion. I don't know what it was. It looked somewhat like a white phosphorus round, but not exactly. It was a separate, distinct explosion. They were not concentric. They were two different explosions, the second to the left of the first.''
Next came a low-velocity explosion, a fireball that grew in size and continued moving to the left, or east. The third explosion could either have been two separate ones that merged or just one large event, Meyer said. The entire sequence took 12 to 15 seconds from the initial sighting of the streak to the fireball, Meyer said.
Baur said in interviews shortly after the accident that he saw a streak moving from left to right, or east to west, before the first explosion. That first burst was a ``hard white light,''he was quoted saying in a March 10 story in Aviation Week and Space Technology. The magazine attributed its account to unnamed crash investigators who quoted Bauer.
``I was trying to figure out what it was,'' the story quotes Baur as saying. ``It was the wrong color for flares. It struck an object coming from the right and made it explode.''
But Baur's head was down when Meyer first saw a streak. Meyer said his view to the left was partially blocked by Baur's body and the cockpit's structure.
``I'm just in total awe and saying (to myself) `What in hell is that?''' Meyer recalled. ``I, I, just don't know what it is,'' he said, still stammering and groping for words a year later.
The eerie scene played out in silence, the explosive sounds muffled by the men's ear plugs and helmets and drowned out by the HH 60 Blackhawk helicopter's engine and whirring blades.
Baur broke the mesmerizing moment, asking if the crew was watching ``pyro,'' short for pyrotechnics, a term used for dropping flares. A C-130 crew from Meyer's 106th Air Rescue Wing was to practice night air refueling with the helicopter and then drop flares in practice.
Paul Beaver, a missile specialist for Jane's, a British publishing house with expertise in military equipment and research, called Meyer's account ``very compelling evidence of some kind of projectile'' hitting TWA 800. Beaver of Jane's Information Group said the description fit that of a longer-range missile warhead detonating near a target.
Beaver has been naval editor and aerospace and defense editor for Jane's. He is a pilot, British army reserve officer and has fired air-to-ground missiles.
Beaver said during interviews Monday that the first reddish-orange burst Meyer saw was consistent with an exploding warhead. Some missiles explode near a target and send shrapnel hurling into the aircraft to cause structural damage.
The white explosion could be solid fuel used to propel missiles, Beaver said, which he called just as dangerous and destructive as a warhead. ``It has the right look,'' he said of the white detonation.
The British destroyer HMS Sheffield was destroyed by the solid fuel propelling a French-made Exocet missile during the Falklands War with Argentina in 1982, Beaver said. The anti-ship missile's warhead did not explode when it struck the Sheffield but the propellant did and caused fires that spread out of control. Twenty men were killed, 24 injured and 242 crew members saved.
There are some tandem missiles but they are used against tanks and not known to be antiaircraft weapons, Beaver said. Tandem missiles have a warhead that first explodes near a hardened target, and a second which then penetrates the weakened armament.
Missiles do emit a reddish exhaust trail but that normally is when the weapons first launch, Beaver said. Missiles and drones can leave a trail of smoke if the solid fuel is not functioning properly, he said.
``It sounds like a projectile,'' said Beaver, who acknowledges the mechanical theory of TWA 800's destruction has drawn his support to date.
After seeing the explosions, Meyer and his crew decided to investigate, radioed the tower, and accelerated almost due south toward the fireball, which they saw hit the water.
The helicopter crew was the first to reach the disaster site, arriving while bodies and flaming aircraft parts still rained from the sky into a growing lake of fire floating on the ocean. The crew skirted 50-foot flames billowing from jet fuel while looking for possible survivors but found none. They spotted a life raft but it was empty.
Meyer said it was several minutes before the combination of the debris, number of bodies and radio report of a missing jumbo jet brought to reality the scope of the disaster.
Meyer was interviewed by media in the first few days after and said he couldn't conclude he saw a missile, a word he still avoids. ``I don't know,'' he said. ``It could have been. But there is a big difference between could have been and `I saw a missile.' ''
He is adamant, however, that what he saw came toward the plane, not from it. The word he uses is ``ordnance'': an explosive projectile.
``I saw ordnance explode,'' he said. ``A military warhead. Could I be wrong? Hey, I've been wrong before. But I don't think so on this one.''
A Navy ship gun's explosive round is one example of ordnance, Meyer said. He saw it during gunnery practice as an officer aboard a destroyer and was close to flak pulling an aerial target for gunnery practice off the Philippines and while waiting to r escue downed pilots over North Vietnam.
The missiles he saw and had shot at him had erratic paths, not the smooth trajectory he saw before the explosions and death fall of TWA 800. That's why he did not conclude ``missile,'' he said.
``I have no idea what that streak of light was,'' Meyer said. ``It could have been a number of things. It could have been the tailpipe of a missile. But I know the explosions I saw were ordnance. The first two I saw were ordnance. The third was petro- chemical.''
Baur, who is a pilot for the Customs Department, has been directed by government officials not to talk about the crash, according to military sources.
Meyer said he sought out FBI agents at the East Moriches Coast Guard station the second day after the crash and finally talked to two, who asked no questions. After a week of fitful dreams, he said, he asked FBI agents to meet him at the home of a military colleague and told the story again.
That was his last FBI-only session, although agents attended two other briefings he gave, he said. One of those sessions was in January, when a four-member NTSB team talked to him for five minutes. Another was when he briefed his Air National Guard un it's leaders.
NTSB spokesman Peter Goelz said Meyer was free at anytime to offer his conclusions, testimony or assessments and that both the FBI and NTSB continued to ask witnesses for reports. Goelz said he agreed with Meyer that Meyer was no explosives expert. Meyer said he can't believe the NTSB believes what it is reporting.
``When the prestigious organization that I have come to respect in 30 years of aviation, the NTSB, announces that they have concluded that the center wing fuel tank was the cause of the destruction of the aircraft, I just can't believe it.
``The conclusion that an explosion in the . . . tank could have been caused by an overheating air conditioner or a spark from a 12-volt fuel pump is ludicrous,'' he said.
Meyer also criticized freelance journalist and investigator James Sanders, whose book, ``The Downing of TWA Flight 800,'' concludes that Meyer was part of a U.S. military project guarding a Navy missile test. Meyer called the allegation a ``lie,'' and said his unit never had been involved in joint exercises with the Navy.
Some people, including Sanders, believe TWA 800 was downed in a ``friendly fire'' accident during a missile test -- struck by an unarmed missile that went through the plane, somehow touching off the gas tank explosion. The Navy, FBI and NTSB have said the Navy did not shoot down the jetliner and did not have aircraft or ships with anti-aircraft missiles close enough to do so.
Sanders said he did not want to battle with Meyer, but when putting together all the evidence of Navy, Coast Guard, Air National Guard and other assets, Meyer's comment about no joint operations ``does not appear accurate.''
Meyer did say that most military personnel with whom he has talked believe TWA 800 was shot down by a missile. As for whose missile, he said: ``There, you've really got the question. There's no way I can give you a definitive answer.''
Meyer no longer is in the Air National Guard. He was retired mandatorily from military service in May when he was passed overfor promotion to lieutenant colonel, two years short of an automatic age-triggered end to his flying status.
Lt. Col. Jim Finkle, spokesman for Meyer's former unit, said the helicopter pilot was not promoted because he had failed to complete a required Air Command and Staff College course. ``The only reason I joined the unit was to fly,'' Meyer said. ``I had had offers to go to staff and be promoted but I told them I was having too much fun flying.''
Meyer said a superior officer suggested that Meyer should not discuss what he saw about TWA 800 until after the NTSB concluded what caused the accident. Meyer said he did not take the suggestion as an order but imposed his own gag because of bad expe riences with the media.
For instance, he said, one TV program used a clip of an interview to make it appear he thought a meteor might have struck the jetliner, something he does not believe. ``I have never seen a shooting star during daylight,'' he said.
Meyer said he felt it necessary to share his unique perspective with the public, given the investigation's apparent course. ``I've been in the service for 25 years and have had access to military secrets,'' he said. ``If they had a secret, they could call me into a room and tell me what was happening in conformance with secrecy standards and then tell me not to speak.
``But to say nothing and ignore me and then to put out information that is false, is to make me ask questions and conclude that something is wrong. What are they trying to cover up? `They' is however high it goes.
``I got a moment of time that evidently I don't share with any of the other 4 million people on Long Island on that day. That's what I have to contribute to the truth of this incident.''
NTSB officials say their investigation may last another year,while the FBI has said that lack of physical evidence of a bomb or missile may lead them to end their involvement in two or three months.
The NTSB plans to hold a public hearing in Baltimore in December to review evidence and take testimony. NTSB spokesman Peter Goelz said he did not know if Meyer would be asked to testify because witness lists were not complete.
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