NTSB's site offers look into TWA flight disaster

Public tragedies such as the crash of TWA Flight 800 on July 17 1996 often generate rumor speculation and conspiracy theories.

The National Transportation Safety Board which conducted a five-day public hearing last week regarding the crash decided to counter the speculation about the causes of the TWA 800 crash with the best possible weapon: the facts which were presented on its World Wide Web site (www.ntsb.gov) in the kind of detail that leaves little room for speculation.

If Web sites serve as an online representation of an organization then NTSB has succeeded in portraying itself as a serious outfit focused on its mission of literally picking up the pieces from transportation disasters and trying to determine their causes.

The site offers anyone interested in researching transportation accidents much more information than they would need including a mountain of data on the crash of TWA Flight 800. The bottom of the NTSB Web page directs users to NTSB investigations in the news and this past week it offered links to more than 4 000 pages of information related to its investigation of the TWA crash. The main NTSB TWA 800 page (www.ntsb.gov/Events/twa800/default.htm) features a picture of the reconstruction of the ill-fated Boeing 747 a guide to the hearing information including the exhibits as well as information on the investigation.

While the majority of federal Web sites do not include links to commercial sites the NTSB sensibly offered easy links to CNN (www.cnn.com) and C-SPAN (www.cspan.org) which provided respectively live Webcasts and TV coverage of the hearings.

A click on the Exhibit button reveals a guide to reports that illustrate the thoroughness of the 16-month investigation. The trajectory study for example not only provides a narrative of the plane's ill-fated flight - and a description of the multiple radars that tracked the aircraft - but a series of charts illustrating the flight coordinated with information taken from the "black boxes."

The exhibits also reveal the contribution to the investigation of a variety of federal agencies including the detailed analysis of the fuel tanks and fuel tank pumps and wiring - a potential cause of the explosion - performed by Air Force Material Integrity Branch Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Ohio.

The Medical/Forensic exhibits highlight the roles played by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and the Army Aeromedical Laboratory both of which helped identify the victims. The FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration Web sites provide information on the crash but both lack the depth offered by the NTSB site. The glitzy FBI home page (www.fbi.gov) takes Web users to a simple statement that the FBI determined "no evidence has been found which would indicate that a criminal act was the cause of the tragedy of TWA 800."

The statement then summarizes the FBI's very prominent role in the investigation and the reasons the FBI ruled out a criminal act. The FAA buried its reaction to last week's NTSB hearings in a series of press releases two hard-to-find clicks away from the agency's home page (www.faa.gov).

The information on TWA Flight 800 illustrates the warehouse of data that the NTSB provides on all kinds of transportation accidents that is hidden behind five button bars - one each for aviation highway marine pipeline and railroad accidents. Clicking on the "Aviation" bar takes the user to another page that is deceptive in the amount of information it provides.

The page offers users another five clickable links which provide large volumes of data linked to the NTSB site. For example the "Accident Synopses" button offers descriptions of more than 38 000 accidents while the "Aviation Accident Statistics" link puts the information contained in the accident reports into statistical form.

The Aviation section also offers a list of accident reports and studies information on how to report an accident and a general description of two key tools used by the NTSB: the cockpit video recorder and the flight-data recorder usually collectively described in accident reports as the "black box " although they are bright orange. The highway marine railroad and pipeline button bars on the home NTSB Web page lead to similar data stores of accidents.

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