2004-10-22 / Community

Website Editor: NTSB Erroneously Discounted AA 587 Eyewitnesses

After the crash, many local residents demonstrated at the American Airlines facility at JFK Airport, demanding that flight paths be changed to avoid the west end of Rockaway. The demonstrations had little apparent effect on flight paths.
After the crash, many local residents demonstrated at the American Airlines facility at JFK Airport, demanding that flight paths be changed to avoid the west end of Rockaway. The demonstrations had little apparent effect on flight paths. The following is an excerpt from Brett Hoffstadt and Vic Trembettas’s Preliminary Report on the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 into Belle Harbor on November 12, 2001. This is the sixth part of the report and it deals with eyewitness reports. The entire report, which is too long to print in the pages of The Wave, can be found at www.usread.com .

One of the more troubling aspects of the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB’s) investigation has been their view that eyewitnesses are generally unreliable and useless –– even if a large pool of eyewitnesses is providing generally consistent statements. This view led the NTSB to forego serious investigation of the American Airlines Flight 587 (AA 587) eyewitnesses, and most importantly, eliminated any attempt to reconcile the evidence or probable cause with their statements. The NTSB does not believe there is a high mathematical probability that what the witnesses claim to have seen did indeed occur. 

We are not proposing that individual statements are completely reliable in regards to fine details, but it is the calling of an investigator to comb through all the statements and gleam the common denominators –– the elements that are common to all the statements.  Such elements are indeed present in the large pool of AA 587 eyewitness accounts. They are a vital and unique source of very useful information. By completely disregarding this information, the NTSB has compromised their ability to understand the sequence of events. 

The obvious questions are, why does the NTSB bother asking for the public to come forward with accounts and why do they bother collecting this information, if it has no value in an accident investigation?

Do varying accounts mean conflicting accounts?

On November 22, 2003, a missile struck a DHL Airbus A300 shortly after takeoff from the Baghdad International Airport. Video of the attack and the stricken aircraft were made available on the Internet. The images of the stricken aircraft can shed light on how it is possible for witnesses to offer different accounts of the same event, since even pictures and video can offer differing accounts.

We learn a few things from a previous aircraft accident, an Airbus A300 flying cargo for DHL.

From that accident, we have learned that an aircraft may be on fire and it is possible for some ground witnesses to not see the fire.

`If an aircraft is on fire, some of the witnesses will see the fire, although they may not be able to correctly identify the location of the fire.

Only when ground witnesses have an optimal viewing can they accurately ascertain the location of the fire.

The NTSB was faced with a similar variance of statements from the AA 587 witnesses. Instead of approaching the witnesses with the same patience and methodical study as they did when they deciphered the bits of data (the ones and zeros) from the flight data recorder –– the NTSB decided, in June of 2002, to issue a press release that used the varying accounts as a way to discredit the entire pool of witnesses. 

Critical clues ignored. U.S.Read’s analysis of the eyewitness statements, along with interviews with many of them, lead us to the conclusion the NTSB lost out on vital clues that could have enhanced their interpretations of the physical evidence. Had they investigated the most important of the eyewitnesses –– those who saw the airplane before it began its nosedive (while it was still in a level attitude) –– the NTSB would have interpreted the flight recorders differently. They would have interpreted them correctly.

If you have followed U.S.Read’s coverage from the time of the crash, you know that we were particularly concerned by several eyewitness accounts of the aircraft exploding, or on fire, while it was in a level attitude –– before the tail separated.

Retired Firefighter Tom Lynch, a witness who saw the aircraft explode while it was level and before the tail separated, had met more than two dozen of his neighbors who also saw the aircraft explode/or on fire while it was level. Mr. Lynch, greatly disturbed by the NTSB’s public statements that there were no indications of any in-flight fire or explosion, organized a small group of these witnesses in January 2002. They sent a letter of petition to the NTSB requesting that they have the opportunity to testify at the Hearings. Their request was denied.  This modest group of eyewitnesses included retired NYPD Police Lieutenant James Conrad and FDNY Deputy Fire Chief Peter Hayden. 

When the NTSB released the full database of eyewitness statements to the public in October 2002, we learned that there were at least 70 people (and perhaps more) who had seen the aircraft explode/on fire, while it was level .

U.S.Read has determined that at least 43 eyewitnesses saw the tail separate. Thirty-nine of those 43 reported unusual events prior to tail separation –– loud, unusual sounds, bangs, booms, pops, the engines very loud (at max power) or fires and explosions. 

As far as we know, the NTSB interviewed not a single eyewitness in a scientific manner. The NTSB never met with any eyewitness at the location where that eyewitness was when they witnessed the crash. The NTSB did not take line-of-sight measurements.  They did not try to triangulate a location in the sky where notable events were witnessed and then compare that to the other evidence. They didn’t even conduct on-site interviews of the recreational boaters who were the first to recover debris in Jamaica Bay –– had they done so they would have easily determined that the tail separated later in the crash sequence just before the plane crossed over the seawall. 

The NTSB, and experts who believe that witnesses are a waste of time, will say that since AA 587 had usable Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) information, the imperfect accounts of eyewitnesses are unnecessary. 

That might be true if the FDR and CVR were perfect recorders; but they are not. To provide appropriate context for this claim, please allow for a brief digression.

There were admittedly many problems with what was recorded on both the DFDR and CVR in the case of AA Flight 587, however.

Therefore, the witnesses cannot be ignored –– as the flight recorders cannot be ignored.  And despite what the NTSB says about how they handled the eyewitness statements, the reality is –– the NTSB ignored them.

Twenty seven witnesses –– in their own words. The selection of witness statements below is taken directly from the NTSB’s public docket. In some cases, the witnesses also submitted illustrations of what they saw and those pictures are included here as well.

Comments inserted in [square brackets] and (parentheses) are from U.S.Read unless otherwise noted.  Some of those comments contain information gained from the dozens of interviews conducted by U.S.Read.

Witness #9 (as numbered in the NTSB docket), Susan A. : “...[she] was in a position to observe the airplane’s right side... then saw an explosion just in front of the airplane’s tail and well behind the aircraft’s wings. The explosion observed by [her] was a “ball of fire” that appeared to originate inside the airplane and expand outward... these flames were red, orange, and grey... the ball of fire appeared to engulf the entire height and width of the airplane; and that the ball of fire continued to travel with the airplane  ...The ball of fire continually emitted charcoal-grey smoke... [She] also saw pieces of debris spray out of the airplane from the same spot... At the same moment the ball of fire emerged from the airplane, the tail piece of the airplane fell away from the rest of the aircraft... it fell off quickly, as if from the force of the explosion just ahead of it.”

Witness 14, Mr. Terry Auclair (In a boat with witness 38) :  “...he was fishing in Jamaica Bay ... when he heard a loud pop from the sky. [He] stated that he looked up in the sky and witnessed a plane on fire, and appeared to have some debris break off and hit the tail section, which subsequently (the tail) separated from the airplane.”

Witness 38, Kenny Brown (in a boat with witness 14) : “ ...pieces from around the middle of the plane were flying back towards the tail... Now at the same time the plane started to drop the right wing showing us the belly where I observed smoke (around the middle between the wings and engines) at this same instant I saw the pieces that were coming off the plane hitting the tail which at that point the tail tore off... From the time I seen [sic] the plane till the time it crashed I never lost sight of it.”

Witnesses 14 and 38, also interviewed by U.S.Read, were so close to the final flight path that debris from AA 587 was falling all around them.  They were the first boat on the scene and recovered pieces of the aircraft including rudder pieces. Terry told U.S.Read that some non-composite debris did not float but sank to the Bay floor. We know from the NYPD Harbor Unit that a detailed search of the Bay floor for debris was not done and the NTSB has never produced any document identifying if any pieces were recovered from the Bay floor. 

Witness 54, Joanne Catanese, retired NYPD Officer : “I observed an airplane that was flying south towards the ocean –– the left side of the plane, from the left wing to the tail, exploded, which caused the aircraft to bank left and spiral down to the earth. There were flames coming from the aircraft after the explosion. I vaguely remember seeing something falling away from the aircraft towards the north, but I cannot describe what it was. When the explosion occurred, it seemed like the airplane stood still for a moment before it banked to the left and plummeted to the ground.”

`U.S.Read has interviewed Joanne and her account of a piece flying off the airplane is similar to that of Witness 253, John Power, who also described a piece fly off to the north.

`Joanne and John were both at least two miles from Flight 587.  For them to see a piece of the aircraft come off –– that piece must have been large. That piece in all likelihood is the tail. It’s evident from both their statements the aircraft was on fire or exploded before that large piece separated. 

Witness 63 (from FBI report) : “witness was at 141st and Newport Avenue (10 blocks west of the crash site). Was outside his car when he heard a plane and looked up over his head. Saw a plane flying low between 500 - 1000 feet... and coming in at a slight angle (In the NYPD report, the witness stated he looked at the plane because he heard what sounded like the Concorde –– this in all likelihood means the aircraft had gone to max power. According to the NTSB, the crew didn’t go to max power until after the tail had come off). The witness saw the left wing dip down and the saw a large piece of the tail fly off the plane –– [this piece] flew toward the direction of the Bay”. 

This witness did not see an explosion but what is important about their statement is that he observes the aircraft after it has gone to max power, it is lower than usual, yet the tail was still attached. 

Witness 100, an active Nassau County Police Officer : “I was on patrol in Nassau County Police Dept. Marine Bureau... I noticed a large jet flying west to slightly south west which appeared to have a large fire at midsection of fuselage centerline of rear left wing... Then the plane started to go into a left bank turn the fuselage fire was clearly visible. I was an aircraft mechanic for 5 years... We were approx. 4 miles away which we later clarified using the charts and had no obstructions in the way of our vision... Prior to contacting the ground a large piece separated from the plane.”  From the FBI interview: “[He] said he watched the plane for about fifteen seconds and then said, ‘They did it again’.”

Witness 100 told U.S.Read the fire was visible before the tail separated . The large piece he saw separate not long before impact could only be the tail as it is highly improbable he could see any other small debris separating at a distance of 4 miles. 

Witness 117, Ed G. (with witness 344) : “I work at Floyd Bennet Field.  The morning of the crash, my partner and I were making our rounds, as we turned towards the Bay we could see a plane ascending, at that moment we saw an explosion behind the wing (right side) near bottom. It looked like a section of the cargo or luggage bay fell out immediately in the Bay.”

Witness 344, Andre W. (with witness 117) : “ [He] states he was looking out over the water watching an airliner take off. [He] states he saw a bright flash and heard a popping sound. The flash was an explosion on the fuselage of the aircraft between the wings and tail. 

The explosion caused the tail section of the airplane to separate from the plane as the luggage fell out of the aircraft into the water... the tail broke off the plane turned on it’s (sic) side with no flame or visible damage to the remainder of the plane. At this point the plane continued to lose it’s [sic] luggage and then crashed into the ground causing a large black plume of smoke.” Witnesses 117, also interviewed by U.S.Read, had a unique view of Flight 587 as they were directly west of the flight path and had a clear view of the starboard (right) side of the aircraft from their location at Floyd Bennet Field. Both men told U.S.Read they thought a very large object from inside the aircraft fell out and fell quickly straight down to the Bay; whatever it was they said it did not flutter down (as we know from other witnesses is how the tail descended). Both men were convinced this object was not the tail. 

U.S.Read believes the engine compressor stalls were a result of the out of control flight (which included some brief, yet violent spins or rolls) that had taken place immediately after the Flight Data Recorder lost all data. A few seconds after that loss of control –– the aircraft stopped spinning, stalled, and started a slow descent in a nose-up or mostly level attitude. The tail was still attached for part of this descent, as were both engines. This part of the descent is evident on the tollbooth video and the aircraft is clearly in a level attitude in the video; it has not yet pitched down

`NTSB’s conclusions –– not supported by the evidence. These compelling statements leave the reader with the clear impression that the tail separating from AA 587 was a consequence of some other series of events.  What is also clear is that a fire and/or explosion was visible to many before tail separation. 

`The NTSB’s ability to discredit all these people and fail to see the powerful clues they offer has been a very disturbing aspect of this investigation.  `If our justice system has enough faith in people’s sense of sight and sound to convict and even execute people based on the testimony of a single eyewitness, why does the NTSB ignore such compelling evidence when it comes not from one witness, but dozens? 

It is impossible to reconcile the witness statements with the NTSB’s conclusions about AA 587. 

`If the other evidence available to investigators –– the debris field, tollbooth video, radar data, CVR, DFDR, cockpit warnings, Air Traffic Control tapes –– were in conflict with the eyewitness statements then the NTSB’s conclusions would have a strong foundation.  However, the bulk of evidence corroborates the eyewitness statements –– leaving the NTSB’s conclusions on a very dubious foundation.

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