TWA Flight 800 gets another look 17 years later

Updated 2:49 p.m. ET

Former investigators are convinced a missile brought down TWA Flight 800 just south of Long Island in 1996, and they have petitioned the government to reopen the probe, citing new evidence.

All 230 passengers and crew were killed when the New York-to-Paris flight crashed July 17, 1996, shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy Airport.

The six former investigators have been brought together for a documentary, "Flight 800," which will be shown on the EPIX cable network. They say the key piece of allegedly new evidence is in the form of radar analysis showing that there was a high velocity explosion, specifically that debris was ejected perpendicular and southward from the aircraft at MACH 4.

They filed a petition with the National Transportation Safety Board Wednesday morning. The NTSB did not give a time frame in which they will respond to the request, only saying it must be based on new evidence.

The crash happened when the Internet was still in its infancy, and it became one of the first news stories fueled by online speculation and conspiracy theories. For some, the findings of the NTSB investigation -- which concluded after a four-year probe that the crash occurred because a spark ignited the center fuel tank -- were never satisfactory.

The former investigators said some of the evidence during the official NTSB-led probe was "falsified."

"Early on in the investigation there was indication that the evidence was being tampered with," said Hank Hughes, a former senior accident investigator with NTSB, during a conference call with reporters.

Hughes and others cited possible missing parts of the plane, possible explosive material, and other findings including evidence of "high-velocity debris exiting the right side of the aircraft," which was traveling east, and would corroborate their theory that a missile came from the north.

Additionally, Hughes and others involved in the film said there were problems with the way eyewitness accounts were handled. They claimed hundreds of eyewitnesses reported seeing something that could only be a missile streaking through the sky towards the plane, but their accounts were discounted by the FBI and not taken into proper consideration when the NTSB held a hearing on the crash.

While those involved in the film said there was almost certainly a cover-up of evidence indicating an explosion, they were careful to not speculate as to who covered it up or why.

CBS News' Pat Milton spent 11 months at the scene of the investigation covering the story for the Associated Press, and wrote an authoritative account of it in a book called "In The Blink Of An Eye." She told CBSNews.com many of the theories raised by the film have long been discounted, but part of the reason competing theories to the official finding keep springing up is that "they never found the tell-tale piece" of evidence.

"There were people at the end that wished they could've pinpointed exactly what happened," Milton said.

She said investigators admitted bomb residue was found at the scene, but they concluded that a police officer training his bomb-sniffing dog had used the exact same plane a few weeks before the crash, and sprinkled the residue as part of the training. She said investigators painstakingly reconstructed thousands of pieces of debris, lining up holes to see if there was any evidence a bomb ripped up part of the plane, and found nothing to indicate that.

The "Flight 800" filmmakers said they were concerned by the fact that the FBI initially said there was a possibility this was a terrorist act, but later changed their tune.

Milton said "at the time, bin Laden was just coming on the radar of the FBI," which was why they were so heavily involved in the crash investigation at all, and why the CIA later became involved. Ultimately, however, the lack of evidence of a bomb was what caused them to change their focus.

The filmmakers and the investigators say their only agenda in raising the issue again is for officials to reexamine the evidence.

John Seaman, the longtime leader of an organization of TWA 800 victims' families, told the Associated Press he and others are weary of the new request.

"They reopen wounds," he said of the petitioners. "Personally I can't keep going over it again and again. I think most families feel that way."

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