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U.S.Read's Flight 587
Parts 2 & 3
August 3, 2004
Brett Hoffstadt and Victor Trombettas
Part 2: Space Shuttle Columbia Debris
The Space Shuttle
Columbia disaster occurred on February 1st, 2003. Immediately,
NASA organized hundreds of people to scour thousands of miles in search
of every piece of debris. The primary goal was to find all the
pieces and thereby trace the source and root cause of the catastrophic
Over the next 3 months, 82,500 individual pieces of debris were found
and cataloged. The search area
was 2.3 million acres of land and
water. Water searches alone found 3,100 targets (1).
The Columbia accident and subsequent investigation is directly
comparable to American Airlines Flight 587 (FL587). The speeds,
altitudes, and forces acting on the vehicles were different, but both
were a catastrophic breakup in flight –– and the investigative approach
ought to be the same.
In contrast to NASA's Shuttle investigation, how did the NTSB search
for and identify debris from FL587?
The debris field from FL587 covered, at most, a few square miles on
land and in Jamaica Bay. Did the NTSB conduct a thorough search
for the debris comparable to the effort in the Shuttle Columbia
investigation? Did they generate a list of every piece of debris
found away from the crash site? Did they photograph this
debris? The answer to all these questions is "no".
Air crash investigators and aviation experts who contribute to U.S.Read
are dumbfounded by
the absence of a professional debris search and proper accounting, and
believe that this glaring investigative failure has jeopardized the
credibility of the NTSB's conclusions on FL587.
One retired NTSB Senior Air Safety Investigator (ASI) told U.S.Read:
"In the case of AA
587, the NTSB did not even lay out a wreckage trail
diagram. This is a basic procedure that is performed when any
aircraft is shedding parts, like AA 587 was doing".
Within weeks of the Shuttle Columbia accident, NASA had published
detailed maps and a listing of debris found by volunteers and
searchers. In contrast, almost three years after FL587 crashed,
the NTSB has not published this data.
Part 3: American Airlines Flight 587 Debris
This is a partial
list of the items that local residents and
eyewitnesses told U.S.Read were found away from the main FL587 crash
Auclare and Kenny Brown were fishing in a
boat in the Bay as Flight 587 passed by them. Terry described
dozens of square or rectangular dark pieces falling from
the aircraft and sinking to the Bay floor. He could not
identify these items.
The NTSB has not identified any items as
being retrieved from the
2. A Belle
Harbor resident, Marina, and her friend Deb, recovered a charred
seatbelt approximately 1,500 feet east/northeast of the main crash
where the left wingtip was found. The seatbelt left a soot-like
residue on their hands.
The NTSB has no record of this debris
recovered at this location.
According to the
NTSB's findings thus far, there would be no reason for
interior debris, like a seatbelt, to depart the aircraft
in-flight. If any interior debris did indeed separate in-flight,
or if the fuselage was breaking up in flight, this changes the nature
of the crash –– and the NTSB would have to answer the question, "why
the fuselage breached?"
Marina was shown pictures of passenger and crew seatbelts from an
American Airlines Airbus A300. Her best recollection was that the
seatbelt was more
grey colored than blue, indicating this could have been a seatbelt
belonging to a crewmember/flight attendant. She identified the
seatbelt in this picture below as matching what she and Deb picked up:
3. Two pieces of the
aircraft, each about two feet by five feet, landed on the roof of
the Rockaway Sunset Diner, almost 3/4 mile east-northeast of the crash
site. This is just across the street from the location where
rudder debris was recovered on land.
The two NYC Police
Officers who collected the items from the Diner told the owners these
pieces were "from the fuselage". Steve Good, one of the owners,
stated that one side of this debris had a formica-like feel and
appearance, with a pattern on it. It reminded him of the interior
wall of an airplane. Police officers and civilians are not
identify broken pieces from an aircraft; but this episode highlights
the lapses on the part of the NTSB –– they
should have identified and mapped these items. Unfortunately . .
. . . the NTSB has no record of any debris
recovered from the
interior debris was identified by flight attendants who
live in the Rockaways, several blocks east/northeast from the crash
site. One of the flight attendants, Ty, said this in a National
Public Radio interview:
"...it looked to me
like an interior piece and something that we look
at every day on the flight."
This piece came from
a larger piece. Jamie, another flight
attendant who saw the larger piece fall, said:
"It was about the
size of someone's front door –– fell out of the sky and
a car was driving down the street, and it basically hit it in the
windshield and smashed apart."
The NTSB has not
identified this debris.
5. Witness #
292 (in the NTSB
witness database) stated, in a letter
to the NTSB, that he saw a
piece of the plane measuring about four feet by four feet fall near
117th street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, about 14 blocks
east of the crash site.
The NTSB has not
identified this debris.
The NTSB's Public
Affairs Office has stated to U.S.Read, on more than
one occasion, that they have no record of any of this debris away from
the crash site. But they added that if this was aircraft
debris then it could have been "blown back" from the main crash site by
of the impact explosion. They refused to accept the possibility
it could have departed in-flight, especially when it came to talk of
possible interior debris. All they will acknowledge as
separating in-flight is the tail and engines.
Of course, the real problem we are faced with is: the NTSB has no
record of any of this debris. How can they comment on how
debris got somewhere if they can't acknowledge the existence of
All of U.S.Read's experts felt that the debris we highlighted above
departed the aircraft in flight because:
1. the explosion
that followed the crash impact was a typical low velocity fuel
explosion, without the type of energy needed to expel debris 3/4 mile
away from the crash site.
2. the prevailing winds would have blown debris southeast from
the crash site –– not northeast where much of this debris was found, as
is shown in this picture:
U.S.Read did encounter specific accounts of interior debris, e.g. an
overhead luggage bin, recovered one block from the crash site.
Given its proximity to the crash site, this could have been deposited
More Debris Reports
Many witnesses also
provided reports of interior debris spewing out of
the aircraft when it was over the Bay, including New York City Deputy
Fire Chief, Peter Hayden. In an interview with U.S.Read, and in his
interview with investigators, Chief Hayden said there was an event in
rear of the fuselage, behind the wings, and debris blew out of the left
side of the fuselage.
Some of the recreational boaters in Jamaica Bay, and residents who live
by the Jamaica Bay seawall, told the NTSB and U.S.Read of items they
descend from the aircraft while it was still flying, including
Witness # 140 was
fishing in Jamaica
Bay, west of the flight path of FL587, not far from Floyd Bennet
Field. He saw FL587 explode and flames come from the fuselage
near the wings. This was followed by smoke, and what he thought
was luggage falling out of the belly of the plane into the Bay.
He saw the tail came off after
these events. After
the crash, he also saw papers and documents floating in the water.
The NTSB has no
record of this debris recovered in the water.
Terry Auclare and
Kenny Brown, who were east of the aircraft, also saw debris come off
the aircraft before the tail. Some debris flew back past the tail
and it looked like some of this debris may have impacted the
tail. These two witnesses were by no means the only individuals
describe debris flying past the tail.
More Reasons to Doubt
As further evidence
of the NTSB's questionable debris collection, the
NTSB's Structures Report (issued in October 2002) listed the left wing
tip as being found on 116th Street, 15 blocks east of the crash
site. After U.S.Read informed the NTSB of a wing tip found at
125th street –– and provided the NTSB with a photograph –– the NTSB
corrected their Structures Report and relocated the left wing tip to
125th Street, a nine-block distance.
The NTSB also learned from U.S.Read
that the left engine fire
bottle was found in Jamaica Bay.
These NTSB lapses undermine confidence in the critical accident
investigation element of
establishing a map tracing the aircraft's disintegration.
The Jamaica Bay
A high-level Coast
Guard source wishing to remain anonymous (who now
works for the Transportation Security Administration) coordinated the
Jamaica Bay recovery effort and informed U.S.Read that the Coast Guard
submitted to the NTSB what looked like an airplane seat cushion
that had been retrieved in Jamaica Bay. They also gave the NTSB a
written report that listed this debris.
The NTSB has no record of this
debris, or of the report.
We find this account interesting for a number of reasons: Terry
Auclare and Kenny Brown, who were in the boat closest to FL587
when it passed over the Bay, told us they saw something descend from
the aircraft into the Bay that looked like an airplane seat (we never told Auclare and
Brown about the seat
If this were in fact a seat cushion the Coast Guard recovered, it would
raise serious questions as to the nature of the breakup of FL587.
Why would a seat cushion be found in Jamaica Bay? Why was the
fuselage breached? If it was a seat cushion, what happened to the
passenger who may have been in the seat?
Since the aircraft's breakup began over Jamaica Bay, doesn't that
suggest that debris other than the tail and rudder may have fallen into
the Bay? Wouldn't the highest priority be to find the earliest
pieces of debris, meaning, those that first departed the stricken
aircraft? Wouldn't we therefore expect a thorough sonar
scan to be done of the Bay?
We learned directly from the NYPD Harbor Unit Chief and our Coast Guard
source, that the only sonar scans performed were done by the NYPD
Harbor Unit, and that those scans were confined to small area of the
final flight path.
The NTSB has never released any information about whether sonar scan
activity even took place, much less if anything was found.
U.S.Read learned from its Coast Guard source that the NYPD Harbor Unit
Chief submitted a report of their search activities and findings to the
NTSB, specifically naming the NTSB's Structures Group Chairman as being
present at that information exchange. This included a map or
sketch showing where the NYPD had
received some sonar "hits" indicating possible debris on the Bay
floor. Our Coast Guard source does not know what those items were
if they were retrieved. He does feel confident the
Harbor Unit would have retrieved those items because they were under or
near the final flight path. We have not been able to confirm if
those 26 items were indeed retrieved and if so, what they were.
The NTSB says they never received a
report, sketch, or map from the
According to the NYPD Harbor Unit Chief, also interviewed by U.S.Read,
the Harbor Unit used side-scan sonar to search a small section (1,000
yards north of the seawall) of the Bay for human bodies. Their
focus was finding possible victims of the crash in the Bay, not
explore every piece of debris detected.
If the Harbor Unit Chief's recollection about the area they scanned is
accurate, it would mean the sonar search may not have even covered the
area where the NTSB says the tail came off (3,300 feet north of the
seawall). It certainly would
not have covered the area
where the Pilot was calling for max power –– where witnesses saw the
aircraft trailing smoke and fire –– and where some debris may have
In early 2002, the NYPD Harbor Unit Chief told U.S.Read that he was
willing to return to the Bay, with his sonar scan team, to conduct a
thorough search of the Bay floor, this time with an eye towards
retrieving possible aircraft debris. He only needed federal
authorization to do it.
The U.S.Read Editor asked the Chief if he would mind if U.S.Read placed
some calls to the NTSB, FAA, and FBI to see if someone on the federal
level would authorize the Harbor Unit to go back to the Bay. He
welcomed our effort. Our phone conversation was cordial.
U.S.Read contacted the NTSB, FAA, and FBI in an effort to inform them
of what the Harbor Chief had told us –– that the sonar scans that were
done in the Bay were very limited in terms of area covered and more
importantly, they were not looking for aircraft debris but for bodies
A few days later, we called the NYPD Harbor Unit to determine if a new
scan of the Bay had been authorized. What we found instead was a
Unit Chief who was very upset he had spoken with us and accused us of
misrepresenting ourselves as federal agents, which we most
certainly did not do. He refused to speak further with
Who's In Charge Here?
We have no
indications the NTSB ever requested a sonar scan of
the Bay, specifically focused on locating and retrieving aircraft
debris. Isn't it likely that this lack
of effort left some undiscovered debris in the Bay? Given what
we've heard from witnesses, there is great cause for concern.
But the most important question is –– given that the aircraft began its
in-flight breakup over the Bay, why
was a thorough salvage effort of
the Bay not ordered in November 2001?
Equally perplexing has been the NTSB's approach to the tollbooth
video. We report on that in Part four.
We welcome your
comments and feedback on
this article at U.S.Read's new web log at: http://usread.blogspot.com/ or
you can send us an email by clicking
"Columbia: What Went Wrong?" by Frank Sietzen Jr., Aerospace America,