2002-07-06 / Community

Flight 587 Update ‘Witness Reliability’

By Victor Trombettas
Flight 587 Update â018Witness Reliability' By Victor Trombettas

Flight 587 Update
'Witness Reliability'
By Victor Trombettas

The New York Times ran a piece on June 23 related to the Flight 587 investigation titled "For Air Crash Detectives, Seeing Isn't Believing" making the case that in addition to offering little if any useful information, eyewitnesses offer such contradictory accounts, as to render them useless. This article was in response to the NTSB's release, on June 4th, of statistics categorizing the 349 statements they had received from witnesses to the crash of Flight 587. The NTSB witness statistics released on June 4th are based mostly on a combination of "summaries" taken by local law enforcement officers the week of the crash and responses to a questionnaire the NTSB mailed to witnesses beginning in January. Not an exhaustive look at the witnesses by any means. Especially when you consider that the NTSB written questionnaire consisted of 5 questions. My wife had to answer more questions when she took our cat to the Vet.

A full 181 (of the 349) witnesses saw a fire while the plane was in the air. On the surface, this appears to be a discrepancy. But a thorough investigation would include interviewing witnesses with a model plane handy at the location where they spotted Flight 587. Witness sightings occur at different angles, distances, and times, and this can have a significant impact on what people see and do not see; especially in the bright morning sun. If all this is done, what emerges is that it is extremely unlikely that a large group of people will say they saw something occur that indeed did not. It is much more likely for people to not see something that did occur. Unfortunately, it does not appear that any witnesses have been interviewed at the location where they witnessed the plane in flight. Even more disturbing, most have not been interviewed in-person even via telephone by the NTSB.

I have interviewed witnesses who saw fire (or an explosion) and those who did not. The first clue to unraveling this apparent discrepancy comes from those who did see fire. The majority of them state the fire did not persist for the entire time they witnessed the flight. In other words, there were times when fires were visible and times when they were not. No discrepancy here.

An unfortunate missing piece from the NTSB's witness statistics is "how many witnesses spotted fires or explosions before the separation of any parts from the plane". That statistic is not there because that question was not asked on their questionnaire.

Twenty-eight people saw an explosion. 321 did not. Does that mean there was no explosion? If there was an explosion, it would only last for a second or two. Flight 587 was in distress up to 38 seconds before impact. If the explosion only lasted for two seconds, then 36 of the 38 seconds of distressed flight contained no explosion. It is easy to see why few witnesses would see an explosion if it did occur.

Some of the witness accounts of in-flight fire can be explained by the departure of the engines from the plane just seconds from impact. But there are many witnesses who are adamant that the engines and tail were intact when they noticed fire, smoke, or an explosion. These in-flight fires could be the result of compressor stalls, engine fires that result from too much fuel and not enough air intake. But thus far, word from the investigation is that compressor stalls or surges have not been identified on the flight recorders. What I find absolutely incredible is the Times' assertion that NTSB investigators have somehow determined that "the idea that the plane caught fire is a trick of memory". How anyone can determine that all 181 witnesses suffered from a trick of memory without being interviewed is beyond me. But more importantly, that comment is beyond the realm of a scientific and objective investigation.

The New York times article quoted Dr. Charles R. Honts, a professor of Psychology at Boise State University and the editor of the Journal of Credibility Assessment and Witness Psychology as saying "Eyewitness memory is reconstructive," said Dr. Honts, who is not associated with the safety board (NTSB). "The biggest mistake you can make is to think about a memory like it's a videotape; there's not a permanent record there." The problem, he said, is that witnesses instinctively try to match events with their past experiences: "How many plane crashes have you witnessed in real life? Probably none. But in the movies? A lot. In the movies, there's always smoke and there's always fire." I practically fell over when I read this. He says it's possible that because 181 witnesses have watched action movies (he assumes) with plane crashes involving fire and smoke, those witnesses will add fire and smoke into an experience when it wasn't there! That's what the man said. What's amazing is how some of those 181 witnesses added the fires in at exactly the same point in the flight path. They must have seen the same movie!

Though the NTSB has tried to pretend they value witness statements, their behavior and comments have clearly indicated otherwise. And the well-respected New York Times Aviation Writer, Matthew Wald, writing from firsthand knowledge reveals, "the safety board (NTSB) generally doesn't place much value on eyewitness reports if data and voice recorders are available."

I have spoken with aviation experts, including engine (powerplants) experts who have told me it is possible a compressor stall fire might not appear on the Flight Data Recorder (FDR). Even the NTSB has admitted the same. But an "unreliable" witness can tell you, "there was fire coming from the engine" (i.e. a possible compressor stall) and give an investigator another piece to the accident puzzle one would think they would like to have access to. So who or what is more reliable when it comes to identifying compressor stalls? In certain cases, witnesses. Also, and very importantly, the flight recorders cannot record every conceivable type of fire or explosion. Because they haven't found evidence of fire or an explosion, does not mean they did not occur. This plane crashed nose-first and burst into a fireball; evidence of a fire or explosion may have been tainted or lost. In addition, the entire flight path over the Bay was not scanned for submerged debris from the plane. The FBI refuses to reveal if they did a complete scan of the wreckage, and human remains, for explosives residue. But more importantly, this investigation has focused on the vertical stabilizer and rudder. The FDR simply does not tell investigators when the rudder or tail started breaking, or more importantly, when they separated from the plane. The NTSB knows when the rudder's position data became "unreliable"; but they have no conclusive evidence as to when the tail fell off. Unreliable data may only mean the rudder was damaged; not that the whole tail had fallen off yet. Many of the witnesses I've spoken to, offer excellent clues as to the fate of the rudder and vertical stabilizer. It appears the rudder started to brake first with the vertical stabilizer falling off just before the plane crossed the seawall. But the NTSB would rather peer into the data gaps of the FDR than the eyes of witnesses.

The New York Times article continued, "The safety board's (NTSB's) skepticism of eyewitness accounts was deepened by the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island six years ago: hundreds of people saw an upward streak that they assumed was a missile, although investigators said it was the body of the plane itself, streaking upward (thousands of feet: emphasis mine) after the forward portion had fallen off following a fuel tank explosion." The CIA produced a video that illustrated this controversial hypothesis. When asked to provide the calculations used to create this "animation" the CIA stated they received the calculations from the NTSB. Boeing said they had no idea how that video was produced. The NTSB said they couldn't release the calculation data because it contained "data proprietary" to Boeing and was, and is, a "trade secret". Pilots and aviation experts have calculated as best they could that the 747 without its nose climbing thousands of feet like a missile, is an aerodynamic impossibility.

Flight 800 is the incident the NTSB now uses as the proof for deeming witnesses unreliable?? If it wasn't for a lone CIA analyst who came up with this highly controversial theory, I wonder if the NTSB would have said the hundreds of Flight 800 witnesses had all imagined the ascending missile-like trail because they had suffered from a mind trick. They had seen missile attacks in movies. Many experts believe the CIA video, the NTSB's support of that video, and the NTSB's refusal to release the supporting calculations, raise serious questions as to "reliability", not of witnesses, but of our country's intelligence and investigative agencies.

The Times quotes a current NTSB Board Official as saying, "Can you imagine if we didn't interview the witnesses?". I interpret that as, "can you imagine the heat we'd take if we didn't go through the motions of interviewing the witnesses?" The NTSB's own spokesman revealed his agency's prejudice towards witnesses in the article, "I don't think I'm making any news by saying that eyewitness testimony at a plane crash and probably at many traumatic events is unreliable."

Am I saying there are no witness discrepancies? Not at all. They do exist. But not to the obscenely exaggerated level that has been suggested by witness critics.

The NTSB's own statistics prove that the Flight 587 witnesses were generally careful to not affirm something they were not sure of. For example, Firefighter Tom Lynch has always been adamant he saw a major explosion or fuel eruption while the vertical stabilizer and engines were attached (he saw two explosions, the first fairly small). He recalls a wing or the tail flying off after the eruption, but he's not 100 percent certain what it was. The very fact he can say "I'm sure of this, but not sure of that" makes him a credible witness as to what he is certain of. Retired police lieutenant, Jim Conrad, had the same statement. Certain he saw explosive flames and smoke before debris fell from the plane, uncertain of what debris he saw falling from the plane after the explosive flames and smoke. Most of the witnesses are similarly careful to only affirm what they are certain of. Rockaway Sunset Diner proprietor, Kenny Good, was aware early on that the attention-getting witnesses were those who had seen fires or explosions. But he just doesn't remember seeing fires or smoke. He had a very different view than Lynch or Conrad, he was 30 to 40 blocks east of them and 12 blocks east of the plane. But he states emphatically that he saw the tail and engines come off just a few seconds from impact. With the right engine preceding the tail.

A New York City Deputy Fire Chief, I'll call him Frank, was at The World Trade Center on September 11th when the Towers collapsed. He was one of the men who carried the crushed, dead body of Father Mychal Judge away from the fallen Tower. This Chief is one of the top fire officials in the City of New York. A trained observer, I'm sure we can agree. He was in his Rockaway neighborhood on the morning of November 12, 2001 when at around 9:16 a.m. he looked up and saw Flight 587. He saw a fireball back of the left wing, with the tail on the plane, but the fireball did not persist. Then he saw stuff blow out (parts of the plane), the plane flipped (or rolled right), and spiraled down into the ground. Anyone care to call him unreliable?


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