On July 16, Lori Aratani wrote a lengthy article for the Washington Post detailing the NTSB’s decision to destroy the remains of TWA Flight 800, “the Paris-bound jetliner that crashed shortly after takeoff from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport 25 years ago Saturday killing all 230 people onboard.” This much Aratani got right, but that is about all.
On Monday, July 19, I started skimming the article with the expectation that Aratani was simply going to recirculate the party line of twenty or so years’ standing. She did not disappoint. “The crash made headlines for years, the tragedy of the loss compounded by suspicions the plane may have been the target of a terrorist attack,” Aratani wrote. “Ultimately, after a four-year investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded the cause was an explosion in the plane’s center fuel tank, the result of a flammable mix of fuel and air ignited by a spark.”
Standard nonsense. There were, in fact, “suspicions” the plane may have been the target of a terrorist attack, but there was overwhelming evidence the 747 was the unfortunate victim of friendly missile fire. And almost no one in the aviation community, save those who were paid to say so, believed that a spontaneous explosion in the center fuel tank destroyed the aircraft.
Amid the Deep State boilerplate, one sentence jumped out. After explaining the meticulous steps the NTSB was taking to destroy all evidence, Aratani wrote, “The precautions are to avoid having pieces fall into the hands of someone who might try to profit from or exploit the crash, as happened in 1999 when a TWA pilot and his wife, a former TWA flight attendant, were convicted of stealing parts from the downed jet.”
“Profit from”? This sentence was not only insulting to those involved but is also factually wrong. I emailed Aratani, “You need to make a major correction here, but you also have an opportunity to rewrite history.” After quoting her account, I wrote, “Here is what happened, from my 2016 book on TWA 800.”
A veteran cop turned investigative reporter, [James] Sanders had authored the 1997 book, The Downing of TWA Flight 800, and paid a high price for doing so. As he explained, fifty-three TWA employees were on board that doomed aircraft, most of them deadheading back to Paris. His wife, Elizabeth Sanders, had served as a trainer for TWA flight attendants. She knew many of those who had died on the plane, attendants and pilots both, and attended more memorial services than she had ever hoped to.
At one of those services she encountered a friend named Terry Stacey, a 747 pilot and manager. Stacey had been working at the investigation site in Calverton on Long Island and harbored deep suspicions about the direction of the investigation. Knowing that James Sanders was an investigative reporter with a couple books to his credit, Stacey asked Elizabeth to introduce them. Her role in what followed would not go much deeper, but for the authorities that was deep enough.
Elizabeth’s life began to unravel in March 1997 when California’s Riverside Press–Enterprise published a front-page article headlined, “New Data Show Missile May Have Nailed TWA 800.” The story described in some detail Sanders’s inquiry into the TWA 800 investigation over the preceding five months.
A still unknown individual working at Calverton had removed a pinch of seatback material from the plane and sent it to Sanders by Federal Express for testing. That person was Stacey. For the FBI this was a problem much greater than a pinch of foam rubber might suggest. If that pinch had escaped the hangar, who knew what else had?
Once the story broke in the Press–Enterprise Elizabeth went into hiding for the next eight months in an Oregon trailer park. That exile almost cost Elizabeth her sanity. James refused to cooperate. The FBI honchos pursued the removal of the TWA 800 evidence with more passion than they pursued the evidence itself. Soon enough, agents soon found their way to Stacey, arresting him and the Sanders.
“Conspiracy theorist and wife charged with theft of parts from airplane,” the FBI announced much too proudly on the New York office’s website. Despite Sanders’s two previous books, the DOJ decided that was not enough output to merit standing as a “journalist.”
Denied that standing, the Sanders were tried as thieves, Elizabeth the Bonnie to James’s Clyde. To save his considerable pension, Stacey pled guilty to a misdemeanor. The Sanders went to trial in a Long Island federal court and were convicted of conspiracy to steal airplane parts.
At the end of the email, I added, “I have cced James Sanders. You have the chance to turn the lemon of your article into lemonade, but I would act quickly. Please call for more information.”
Knowing she got her facts wrong, Aratani wrote back promptly and nicely, “Hi Jack –Thanks for the heads up. I will check with my editors on making the correction. Take care, Lori”