2002-06-29 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

Dr. Charles Honts, a professor of Psychology at Boise State University in Idaho, does not think much of what the eyewitnesses to the crash of flight 587 saw that November day. In fact, Dr. Honts does not think much of eyewitness evidence in any kind of accident.

"People who saw the plane crash were witnesses to an unusual event, one that none of them had probably ever seen before," Honts told The Wave in a telephone interview this week. "The question is how, later on, that person integrates that accident and what they saw into their memory and then brings it back when they are telling about what they saw."

"Memory is a reconstructive process, not like a videotape," he adds. "Eyewitnesses often incorporate things that they believe should have happened. They have seen lots of plane crashes on television and in the movies. There is always smoke and fire in those crashes, so there must have been smoke and fire here."

Would it make a difference, Honts was asked, if those who saw the crash were used to seeing fire and destruction – firefighters and police officers?

"It might make a little difference, but not an awful lot of difference," he responded. "While they are used to seeing fire and used to keeping their emotions in check, they probably have never seen an airliner crash before."

Honts, the editor of the Journal of Credibility Assessment and Witness Psychology," says that the eyewitness’ stories are not being "made up" in the real sense of the word.

"These people genuinely believe they think that they saw what they did not really see."

The opinion of Honts and others in the field feed the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) disdain of eyewitness statements.

While more than half of those who reported seeing the plane in the air reported that there was either smoke or fire, and nearly 60 percent said that they saw things falling off the plane while it was still in flight, those eyewitnesses cannot agree on where the smoke and fire were or what fell off the plane.

There are those who believe that the NTSB released the witness statistics simply to show that there was no consensus among those who saw the plane in the air. I agree. It is unusual for such statistics to be released and there is no compelling reason for their release at this time, except to show that the eyewitnesses are all over the place and therefore are unreliable.

Some saw fire, some saw smoke, some saw fire and smoke on the left side of the aircraft, some on the right side. Some saw a wing drop off, some saw engines drop off.

Investigators for the NTSB have clearly stated, however, that there is no evidence in the wreckage or in the flight data recorder (FDR) that suggest that there was either fire or an explosion on the plane prior to the crash.

New York Times writer Matthew Wald did a piece about the crash in last weeks Sunday "Week In Review" section. He cited the "scatter" in the witness statements to focus on why the NTSB does not take the statements very seriously.

Wald says, "As a result, the safety board generally does not place much value on eyewitness reports if the data and voice recorders are available. For many investigators, the only infallible witness is a twisted piece of metal."

Wald quotes Dr. Bernard S. Loeb, who retired as the safety board’s director of aviation safety last year.

"In the case of 587, it’s unlikely that the witnesses will provide much to help the investigation, but you never know when you begin an investigation – where you’re going to get important leads, from the recorders from witnesses, from the structure itself."

He also quotes Ted Lopatkiewicz, a spokesperson for the NTSB, who has often been quoted in this space.

""I don’t think that I’m making any news by saying that eyewitness testimony at a plane crash and probably at many traumatic events, is unreliable."

During a general discussion as part of the interview, Honts was told that many people on the peninsula have a general mistrust of the NTSB. He replied by saying that he could not comment on its credibility, but that "historically, it had a excellent reputation among researchers."

Honts was told of the witness meeting that The Wave is sponsoring on July 10 at the Beach Club. He was asked, in light of what he had said, if the meeting was a "waste of time."

"It probably will not help much in finding out what happened to flight 587," he said. "Psychologically speaking, however, it will be good for the eyewitnesses to talk about it, to share what they believe that they saw."

There are others who think that the meeting may be a mistake as well, but for a different reason.

They believe that the witnesses will "cross-pollinate" at the meeting, take something of other witness statements for their own, add to their "memory" by what they hear at the meeting.

There are still others who believe that the media should be kept out of the meeting.

"Lots of witnesses will not be comfortable with the media present," one such person says. "Let’s keep it a relaxed atmosphere where we can collect information without the media being present."

The meeting will go on as scheduled, Honts’ opinions aside. We believe that such a meeting can make a difference in the investigation.

As for keeping the media out of the meeting, it would be a bit disingenuous for a newspaper to host a meeting of public interest and keep other newspapers out. That is not the way newspapers should be operating.

It is hard to argue with Honts. He is a real expert in his field. So is Loeb. The NTSB has been doing this for ages. There is still a feeling that, despite all the expert testimony that eyewitnesses are unreliable, there is something more than "twisted metal" that has to be looked at here.

Hope to see you all at the meeting.

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