TWA Flight 800 crash: Inside the missile theory

(CBS News) All 230 passengers and crew were killed when TWA flight 800, a New York-to-Paris flight, crashed July 17, 1996, shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy Airport.

It's been almost 17 years since that plane blew up and now, a documentary called "TWA Flight 800," featuring former investigators, is raising questions about the official explanation: a fuel tank explosion.

TWA Flight 800 gets another look 17 years later

The documentary features interviews with those officials who point to accounts and evidence that the plane may have been shot down.

CBS News senior correspondent John Miller, the first reporter on the scene, has covered the disaster extensively. He said of the documentary, "I think they've raised old concerns, but they packaged it in a way that's very compelling. ... This is one of those documentaries, if you watch the whole thing, you walk away convinced. But if you actually know the whole story, you know that they lined up some very compelling and concerning facts, but they also left out some of the alternative theories and answers to that, so it's going get a lot of attention."

The missile theory, Miller added, does have a couple "Achilles heels." He explained, "If it was a terrorist missile fired by some shoulder launch thing on a boat and you've had a successful attack, you killed 230 people, you downed an airliner. If you don't claim responsibility, you've basically wasted the effort, so why wasn't a credible claim made or discovered after all these years?

"The second part of the missile theory is even darker. There were Navy maneuvers, U.S. Navy maneuvers going off the coast that day and there's a theory that one of their missiles errantly hit the plane, but that would require an awful lot. First of all, the investigators made them account for every piece of ordinance on all those ships. And second of all, it would mean that every person, hundreds of sailors involved in that operation would somehow manage to keep this secret and remain silent and do so forever. That just doesn't happen."

Speaking of the documentary's sources, Miller said, "The serious people in this documentary do (believe the plane was shot down) and I say that because one of them is an extraordinarily experienced (National Transportation Safety Board) investigator with 26 years experience, and before that he was a cop. Another was one of the chief pilots at TWA who was part of the investigation. Another was the medical examiner who raised questions about the type of wounds they found in victims in the water. So there's a lot there.

"Now, I also spoke to the FBI people who worked the case and there are people who said, 'You know, we went through all those theories chapter and verse.' ... Why were those explosive residue traces found on the plane? Well, they traced it to training that was done with a bomb dog in St. Louis where they hid explosives in different places to see if the dog could find it on that actual jet. But every time you get to clear one of these things up, then there's the trace of ... a different explosive that was found on the curtain of the aft cargo hold and that was one of the 11 doors on the plane that was never recovered. So the deeper you get, the more questions you get."

Miller, the first reporter on the scene of the crash, was already on a boat that day when he got word of the crash. He said, "I had just headed to the dock, I was cleaning things up and getting ready to go, and I got a call from a New York City Emergency Medical Service guy who said, 'Do you know about the plane crash?' I gathered all the gear, got back on the boat. I was 14 miles away and right there."

Miller called it the "eeriest night of (his) life."

Watch Miller's recollections of that night in the video below.

He said, "You're coming out on a moonless night in the pitch-black ocean, you crest the horizon and you see the horizon is lit up and you think it's the lights of all the boats, but when you crest the horizon, you see it's a city of fire.

"We took the boat into the fire," he continued. "We had blankets and equipment. We thought we were going to find people that could be saved. But instead there was mail addressed in French floating on top of the water, a child's toy and people who clearly did not survive. It was very strange and upsetting."

For more with Miller, watch his full "CBS This Morning" interview at the top of this article.