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Experts: TWA disaster an accident

Experts who played key roles in the investigation of one of America's worst aviation disasters are standing by their conclusion that the 1996 TWA crash near New York City was caused by an accidental fuel tank explosion and not a bomb or missile.

The explosion and crash of the Boeing 747 on July 17 1996 killed all 230 people on board.

Officials spoke to reporters at a briefing on the National Transportation Safety Board's four-year investigation into TWA flight 800's crash. The board took the usual step of organising the briefing on an investigation that has been closed for years, in response to a documentary to be shown this month that says new evidence points to the often-discounted theory that a missile strike may have downed the jumbo jet.

The officials dismissed allegations of a cover-up, saying evidence pointed strongly to the board's conclusion that overheated gases in the plane's near-empty fuel tank caused the tank to explode. The gases were most likely ignited by a spark from damaged wiring in a fuel measuring system.

Joseph Kolly, the current director of the board's Office of Research and Engineering, who was the chief fire and explosives investigator for the crash probe, said he was "absolutely" certain the fuel tank was the cause.

In their search for clues, investigators tested shoulder-fired missiles to see if they would show up on radar and used another 747 to replicate the overheating of fuel tank vapours, among other tests. "I am upset about bringing this back up, for the sake of the people who lost folks in the accident," Mr Kolly said. "It's not good."

But doubters include three former investigators - one from the NTSB, one from TWA and one from the Air Line Pilots Association - who appear in the film.

Former investigator Hank Hughes, who was in charge of reconstructing the interior of the aircraft cabin from debris recovered from the ocean, said the board "completely discounted" the accounts of more than 200 witnesses who said they saw a streak of light heading towards the plane before it broke apart. Mr Hughes also said the plane's reconstructed fuselage had holes consistent with what would be expected from missile shrapnel.

But officials at the briefing said an examination of witness statements showed that what people thought might be a missile was actually the trajectory of the plane after the fiery explosion, the force of which broke off some pieces of the aircraft.

The former investigators have also signed a petition filed with the NTSB to reconsider reopen the probe. Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for the board, said the board was considering the petition.

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