Hunt for cause turns on info tech tools
- By Bob Brewin, Colleen O'Hara, L. Scott Tillett, L. Scott Tillett
- Dec 14, 1997
The ongoing investigation into the crash of TWA Flight 800 highlighted last week after five days of public hearings tapped more than a dozen federal agencies that marshaled an unprecedented collection of high-technology systems to probe the cause of the disaster.
For the National Transportation Safety Board the investigation represented the longest and "most technologically intensive" investigation ever conducted by NTSB said Vernon Ellingstad director of the Office of Research and Engineering at NTSB.
Interviews with personnel at key federal agencies as well as an examination of 4 000 pages of exhibits released by NTSB show that a disparate group of federal and local agencies contributed their special technological skills to the TWA 800 probe which took more than a year to rule out a terrorist or criminal attack against the aircraft. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration kicked off the data-collection efforts when its vessel the Rude arrived at the crash site a day after the Boeing 747 went down in flames on July 18 1996.
To help retrieve the wreckage the Rude used a receiver tuned to a Coast Guard Differential Global Positioning System beacon on Long Island Sound in New York to record precise coordinates of crash debris said Andy Armstrong chief of NOAA's Hydrographic Services Division. The crew then input this data into a geographic information system from MapInfo Corp. which quickly became the de facto GIS standard for several of the TWA 800 investigation teams.
Armstrong said that during the "first week or so" of the debris recovery "we also performed MapInfo plots for the Coast Guard and the FBI to use at their daily briefings." As a growing fleet of vessels scoured the Atlantic for crash debris the FBI's New York field office set up a computerized operations center at the Coast Guard station in East Moriches Long Island to determine if the crash was the result of a criminal act.
Joe Cantamessa the special agent in charge of the Special Operations Division in the FBI's New York office and a builder of PCs in his spare time supervised the FBI's information technology operation on the TWA 800 investigation. The FBI team used a suite of applications with Microsoft Corp.'s Access database software to record and organize leads that came in and to create a time line of events surrounding the crash. The investigation involved more than 1 000 interviews with family members and eyewitnesses including 186 interviews with people who had access to the flight before it took off. Reports from these interviews were also filed onto the agency's secure and encrypted FBINet.
Reports as well as records received from airline carriers industry contractors and other agencies were fed into specially created FBI databases running on the Adabase platform. Once all this information - including crash-site evidence data records of drawbridge openings 911 call logs and plane manifests - was in one database FBI officials began looking for patterns by analyzing the data.For example victims' injuries could be compared with damage to the plane's seats and to the 747 allowing investigators to see any patterns that might lend credence to either a bomb or a shoulder-launched-missile theory.
Dr. Dennis Shanahan NTSB's senior medical consultant said the MapInfo database enabled the medical/forensic team to visualize the pattern of injuries to the victims as well as their seat locations on the aircraft in an effort to determine whether the crash was caused by a bomb. "A high-yield device would leave indications on the passengers seated in the immediate vicinity...[but we] did not see any [such] patterns...and nothing indicated a bomb " said Shanahan who served as commander of the Army's Aeromedical Research Lab Fort Rucker Ala. when the investigation started. He is now a vice president of ARRCA Inc. a Bucks County Pa. engineering consulting firm.
The FBI also used MapInfo's GIS software to pinpoint on electronic maps the locations where investigators might find evidence and to isolate where sightings of the crash might have occurred. The Suffolk County N.Y. Police Department at the request of NTSB used MapInfo to develop a database that helped the TWA 800 medical/forensic and cabin-damage teams to organize information said Anthony M. Logallo a member of the NTSB TWA 800 Medical/Forensic Investigative Group who works in the police department's Data Services Division.
Before the TWA 800 crash NTSB had used a manual system to analyze victim injury and cabin interior damage manually plotting the location of victims in the cabin and then matching for example recovered articles of clothing with a particular victim.
Logallo who had mastered MapInfo through seven years of use knew the GIS system could be used to plot "non-earth" objects and he proceeded to do that with the Boeing 747 reducing the aircraft's seating chart to map data points in MapInfo. Investigators input data into Microsoft Access which Logallo then imported directly into the MapInfo chart. The data was then relatively easy to query and correlate Logallo said. The TWA 800 investigation marked the first time to Logallo's knowledge that a GIS system had been put to such a use.
The cabin GIS system not only made access to information easier for investigators but it also aided the analytical process. "A picture is worth a thousand words" because the database allowed investigators to see at a glance for example "all the people wearing brown shoes " Logallo said. Although the Suffolk County medical examiner could identify the majority of the 230 victims through standard forensic methods NTSB tasked the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology to identify 14 victims from DNA contained in bone fragments according to Demris Lee the chief DNA analyst at AFIP.
The laboratory ran nuclear DNA tests on the bone fragments and then used Perkin-Elmer Corp.'s Gene Scan software on an Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh to help interpret the information. To determine possible causes of the crash NTSB did not ignore even the remotest of possibilities.
For example the agency tapped into data compiled by Dynatech Corp.'s National Lightning Detection Network to determine if the aircraft had been hit by a random stroke of lightning. Similarly NTSB asked scientists at Sandia National Laboratories N.M. to determine if a giant methane bubble released from the Atlantic Ocean could have resulted in an electrical discharge and gas detonation of the plane. (See Gateway Guide on Page 18 for more NTSB information.)