Tom Stalcup, co-producer of TWA Flight 800.
Exactly 17 years ago, a plane headed from New York to Paris burst into flames just 12 minutes after takeoff, killing all 230 people aboard.
A four-year government investigation concluded that the crash was caused by an explosion in the center fuel tank. However, many are skeptical of the official story.
A new documentary, TWA Flight 800, airing tonight on EPIX, claims to show what really happened on July 17th, 1996. The film says the plane was brought down not by a fuel tank explosion, but by three missiles that exploded next to the aircraft.
It sounds crazy, but circumstantial evidence coupled with interviews with four accident investigators who worked on the original investigation may be enough to get the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to reopen the case. That would be a remarkable achievement for the documentarian, an enigma of a citizen journalist named Tom Stalcup, who became fascinated by the crash and spearheaded an amateur investigation for 16 years.
"I felt assaulted. I felt as if I was being lied to."
Stalcup was a graduate student studying physics at Florida State University in 1997. He was watching the news one day when he saw an animation of the plane crash that had been produced by the CIA. The scenario showed the plane climbing even after its nose was blown off, which just didn’t feel right, Stalcup said.
"I felt assaulted. I felt as if I was being lied to," he says in the documentary. "It looked more like a big piece of propaganda than the results of an aircraft investigation."
Stalcup went online, where he found others who were also speculating about the animation and the true cause of the crash. There was the "microwave theory," which says the Navy misfired a high-powered microwave weapon. There was also the "terrorist bomb" theory, which says a bomb was on the plane.
Stalcup found that another amateur investigator had compiled a list of eyewitness names drawn from press reports. Though he had never done any journalism or investigative work before, Stalcup felt compelled to call the witnesses in order to fact-check the official story. The discrepancies he found formed the basis for what became TWA Flight 800.
Stalcup has dabbled in other alternative narrative communities and used to run a site called CNNexposed.com, which tracked what he believed to be corporate bias in the network’s reporting. But nothing has come close to capturing his interest the way flight 800 did.
"This, I believe, is the most brazen cover-up in history for sure," Stalcup tells The Verge. He believes that the conspiracy in the federal government went all the way to the top. In the closing credits of the film, he includes President Bill Clinton in the montage of people who declined to be interviewed. In the film, he says, "Flight 800 is just a fuck-you to the world: ‘Look what we can really get away with.’"
Stalcup didn’t know anyone who was on board the flight. The film addresses his inexplicable obsession head-on; at one point, he talks about how his mother’s death at a young age taught him to value the truth. "Why should the audience believe you? I mean, who are you to be doing this?" his co-producer Kristina Borjesson asks. Stalcup deflects the question. "I don’t want the audience to believe me," he says. "I want them to look at the evidence, and see what it says."
The film is a total rabbit hole
It’s difficult to run down the evidence presented in the documentary because it’s a total rabbit hole. The retired investigators who came forward seem sincere, especially Hank Hughes, a senior accident investigator for the NTSB who also testified before Congress about his concerns surrounding the investigation in 1999. However, the investigators recruited by Stalcup are just four out of more than a thousand people who worked on the probe. At the time, investigators told Congress that the FBI was too aggressive in pushing a terrorism theory over a mechanical one.
Questions are raised in the film — Why was an FBI agent found in the aircraft hangar in the middle of the night, hammering on a piece of evidence? — and then dropped and never addressed again. The question of who shot the alleged missiles is never acknowledged. That may be because the filmmakers decided the prevailing theory on the internet — friendly fire from the US military — was too incendiary. Stalcup says the question was omitted because he is still investigating the answer.
Though there are many claims of odd, sneaky behavior by the feds, the movie leans heavily on three "smoking guns." First, one wing tested positive for explosives residue, which the FBI later said was a false positive. Second, Federal Aviation Administration radar showed fast-moving debris, the film asserts, when a center fuel tank explosion would have produced a low-velocity explosion. And third, some of the witnesses say they saw what looked like a flare — light shooting straight up — which is consistent with a missile.
Who fired the alleged missiles?
The fact that there is so much publicly available evidence of the TWA flight 800 crash is a big part of why the counter-narrative spread. More than 150 witnesses gave statements to the FBI. There are also hundreds of pages of documents related to the government’s investigation that were made public, giving civilian investigators plenty of material to pick through for inconsistencies. There was also rampant speculation among pilots and other employees of the airline industry, which loaned credibility to the theory that something was off about the official narrative.
The government also acknowledged the possibility of a missile or terrorist attack early on, which made the theory hard to snuff out — especially with the roaring online community of skeptics reinforcing each others’ suspicions. Only about 20 percent of American adults were online at the time, but the internet was the best place to research Boeing 747s and talk about alternative crash theories. Flight 800 "truthers" began to gather on pop-up websites from freebie hosts like Geocities and Angelfire, and on more official platforms such as the alternative-narrative blog whatreallyhappened.com. The debate continues today on Infowars.com.
One of the many sites explaining an alternative theory about the TWA flight 800 crash.
Other flight 800 skeptics slowly dropped out of the picture, but Stalcup stuck with it. When he graduated in 2000, Stalcup did nothing but work on the flight 800 case for "a solid year or two," he tells The Verge. He filed Freedom of Information Act requests to the NTSB, FBI, and CIA. He is now involved in a lawsuit with the CIA because he claims the agency did not fulfill its duty to disclose information to the public. He hosted a hearing where eyewitnesses testified, which is where he met TV journalist Borjesson and convinced her to make TWA Flight 800 with him. The pair went into debt in order to film the trailer, and EPIX financed the rest.
Stalcup and Borjesson submitted a formal petition to have the NTSB reopen the investigation. The agency typically takes 60 days to review and respond, and it’s not addressing the issue publicly until then. In the meantime, the story has gotten heavy press in every mainstream media outlet from The Huffington Post to ABC News.
John Goglia, who signed off on the original investigation as one of the five members of the NTSB, wrote a piece for Forbes breaking down the evidence in the documentary. He believes Stalcup has not met the threshold for re-opening an investigation. "I think the official conclusion is correct," he said. "If there is enough evidence in what they submitted in their reconsideration petition, then I would support it. I do not think that it meets that criteria, but I’m leaving myself a little hedge room."