On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800, a Paris-bound 747 out of JFK, blew up off the coast of Long Island. It seemed somehow fitting that James Kallstrom, the public face of the FBI investigation into the plane’s destruction, would die two weeks before the 25th anniversary. As a patriot, a Vietnam vet, and an outspoken critic of all things Clinton, Kallstrom once held promise as the insider most likely to come clean. He never did.
As to my own involvement with this story, until the evening of February 23, 2000, I was as naïve as a CNN anchor. Before that evening, I would have dismissed out of hand anyone who dared suggest that elements of the FBI and CIA would conspire with the White House and the New York Times to cover-up the cause of so public a disaster.
February 23, 2000 was the night my education began.
Earlier that evening I had listened with some interest at a Kansas City country club as investigative reporter James Sanders spoke about his inquiry into the 747’s fate. At a dinner afterwards, I found myself sitting next to James’s wife, Elizabeth. A sweet and soft-spoken woman of Philippine descent, she filled me in on the personal details. At the time of the disaster, she was a trainer for TWA. She had been a flight attendant for some years before that.
Of the 230 people killed on that ill-fated flight, 53 were TWA employees, many of them Elizabeth’s friends. At one of the numerous memorial services, Elizabeth introduced James to Terry Stacey, a 747 manager and pilot who was working on the investigation.
“We need to talk,” Stacy told Sanders. And so began a relationship that would end with James and Elizabeth being convicted of conspiracy in a federal court. Elizabeth’s crime? Introducing her husband to her friend—it went no deeper than that. James’s crime? Reporting that the U.S. Navy had inadvertently shot down TWA 800—it went no deeper than that. Meeting Elizabeth and hearing her story was what opened my eyes. A government that arrested and tried Elizabeth could arrest my wife, my sister, my daughter.
At the time, I was producing corporate videos and TV commercials. I was curious enough to meet the Sanders for breakfast to talk about making a documentary. Still skeptical, I explained that I wanted nothing to do with a ‘might have, could have’ scenario. James had to prove to me beyond reasonable doubt that the plane had been shot down before we proceeded.
Willing to try, James invited me to the couple’s Fort Lauderdale condo to review his materials. Before leaving, I read the two mainstream books written on the crash, one by Patricia Milton of the Associated Press, the other by Christine Negroni of CNN. At the time, I found it difficult to believe that major media reporters could miss a story as large as a missile strike on a 747. After three days chez Sanders, my only question was why they missed the story.
So began my deep dive into this doomed flight. One documentary and two books later, I can say with 100 percent confidence that missile fire destroyed TWA Flight 800. I can say with 95 percent confidence that the U.S. Navy fired those missiles. As James Sanders will attest, I resisted that latter conclusion until the evidence overwhelmed me. I did not want to believe it to be true.
Along the way, I have communicated with scores of witnesses either to the crash itself or the investigation. I have had lunch with the then NTSB chairman Christopher Hart and had a couple of interesting phone calls with Kallstrom. I have met with relevant reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Fox News, the latter of whom slipped me an eye-opening video that his network was too timid to air.