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Years after jet crash, a safety issue lingers

Despite findings, fuel-tank devices still not required

NEW YORK -- On the 10th anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, pressure is mounting for a congressional inquiry into why the federal government has still not mandated fuel-tank safety systems that could prevent a repeat catastrophe.

The Paris-bound Boeing 747 jetliner plunged into the Atlantic minutes after takeoff from Kennedy Airport on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 people aboard.

In 2000, after a four-year, $38 million investigation -- the most expensive in aviation history -- the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that poorly designed wiring triggered an explosion in Flight 800's near-empty center fuel tank.

Soon after the crash, the agency called for devices to be installed on jetliners that would replace oxygen in fuel tanks with nonexplosive nitrogen. The so-called inerting systems have been on the NTSB's Most Wanted List of air safety improvements ever since.

But the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to require the systems -- even though its own research shows they are 100 percent effective in preventing explosions like the one the NTSB determined had downed Flight 800.

``This is an important issue which must be resolved," said Representative Pete King, Republican of New York, whose district includes Smith Point Park in Brookhaven, where family members of victims plan to assemble today for a memorial service, as they have every year since the crash.

Late last month, acting NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker slammed the FAA for moving ``much too slowly. Ten years after the TWA accident, fuel tank inerting systems are not in place in our airliners, and flammability exposure is largely unchanged."

While inerting has been standard on military aircraft since the Vietnam War, the FAA did not propose rules requiring it for commercial airliners until last November. And the agency does not expect to complete its review of industry reaction to the proposal before the end of the year.

If the rule is ultimately approved, it will take at least seven years to retrofit the country's commercial fleet, according to the FAA.

``Our children, our husbands, our wives, our loved ones died because the FAA did not act responsibly," said John Seaman, chairman of the Families of TWA Flight 800 Association, whose niece Michelle Becker, 19, perished in the crash. ``Congress needs to get to the bottom of this."

FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said flying is ``far safer now than in 1996." She called the proposed rule a ``safety net" that ``follows more than 100 directives to eliminate ignition sources."

The FAA says it would cost $313 million to retrofit the US fleet. The Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines, opposes the move, saying federal officials have overstated the risk and underestimated the effectiveness of other safety systems. ``Simply put, it is not justified from a benefit-cost perspective."

Since 1959, 26 fuel tank explosions have been documented in commercial and military aircraft, four after Flight 800; 346 people have died in them.

Faced with industry opposition, the FAA two years ago developed a lightweight, less costly fuel-tank system and shared the design with Boeing and Airbus for possible voluntary installation.

Boeing has made a fuel tank flammability reduction system part of its new 787 Dreamliner aircraft and has begun installing inerting devices on newly built 747s. But it has not retrofit older 747s.

A decade after the crash, many Americans say they believe that TWA Flight 800 was downed by a missile.

``I remain convinced that the airplane was shot down," said Fred Meyer, a retired Air Force major who insists he saw ``a missile plume across the sky" as he sat in an Air National Guard helicopter over Westhampton Beach that fateful July evening.

James Kallstrom, who was the FBI's lead investigator on the case and is now New York State's homeland security chief, said teams of forensic specialists and metallurgists worked on the missile theory. ``But in the final analysis, we found no evidence of intervention by any kind of explosive device," he said.

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