January 15, 2002
... a chronological recollection of some of the earliest witness accounts is in order:
"A senior Bush administration official told CNN initial indications are that there was an explosion aboard the plane but that the source of the explosion is unknown." (from cnn.com on November 12th)
"We got five eyewitnesses to describe what they saw as an explosion coming, most of them believed, from the right wing." (Paula Zahn, November 12th).
"The Associated Press quoted unidentified Bush administration officials as saying the FBI had concluded that an explosion brought the jet down and was investigating whether the crash was an accident or sabotage." (from msnbc.com on November 12th)
"A law enforcement source at the (crash) scene told The Associated Press that the likelihood of a mechanical problem stemmed from the fact that flames were seen shooting out of the left engine and that witnesses reported the plane had difficulty climbing and was banking to the left." (from foxnews.com on November 12th)
Tom Lynch, a retired firefighter, told the New York Post. "I'm telling you, the tail was there until the second explosion. No tail fell off, not before the explosion. I swear to that," Lynch told the paper's Steve Dunleavy. The eyewitness said there was absolutely no doubt about what he saw. "I had my head up taking in that beautiful, clear day and was staring straight at the plane. It made a bank turn and suddenly there was an explosion, orange and black, on the right-hand side of the fuselage. It was a small explosion, about half the size of a car." He continued: "The plane kept on going straight for about two or three seconds as if nothing had happened, then 'vwoof' - the second, big explosion on the right wing, orange and black. It was only then that the plane fell apart. It was after the explosion and I'm telling you, the tail was there until the second explosion." Lynch, who lives near the Belle Harbor, N.Y., crash site, said he knew 13 others who also saw the explosion and/or fire.
Retired police lieutenant Jim Conrad, told Steve Dunleavy: "I saw exactly what Tom (Lynch) saw. I was near a stoplight at the Marine Parkway Bridge. First, the small explosion. The plane kept on going, tail intact, then the big explosion and the plane nose-dived.
Barbara Morris, a Rockaway Park realtor: "I heard the sound of a plane that didn't sound right. It sounded like it was in trouble," Morris told ABCNEWS.com. The jet was in what appeared to be a takeoff position, she said, and it was on fire. Suddenly, Morris heard a boom. "But I couldn't see the plane, there was just black smoke and I saw the thing starting to go down," she said.
Jackie Power, an eyewitness who lives in Brooklyn, told ABCNEWS she and her husband (John Power; his statement here) were "walking their dog about two miles away from the crash site when she saw the plane apparently on fire. It was a clear morning and we were overlooking the water and watching the ducks when we noticed this plane, there seemed to be fire and we saw debris fall off of it and then it stopped for a second and then it just plummeted," Power said.
"First I heard a big explosion. then I saw flames come out from behind the plane ... said Antonio Villela, a construction worker."
"Large numbers of residents, many with children home for the day, saw American Airlines flight 587 catch fire and plunge to earth Monday morning." (from cnn.com on Nov. 12th)
"I keep hearing the authorities talk about an engine falling off the plane and [then] an explosion," eyewitness Rod McHale told the New York Post. "That's not what I heard and saw. There was an explosion and then the engine fell off." (November 13th)
"Michael Benjamin, said he saw a huge orange fire engulfing the front third of the plane's right side while he was driving along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn with his wife and two children. Benjamin, who works for the Oversight, Analysis and Investigations Committee of the state Assembly, said he had attempted to contact the NTSB but had not received a return call." (from the New York Post on January 5th, 2002).
Somehow ... in the face of all these (and more) witness statements about inflight fires and explosions the NTSB was able to say on the day of the crash that "all indications pointed to an accident". They must have quite a different set of "indicators" than the rest of us.
The NTSB released their latest update on November 15th and it's available at http://www.ntsb.gov/Pressrel/2002/020115.htm. Apparently, they are still looking closely at the vertical stabilizer and rudder, and will be for some time to come. In a refreshing change of previous policy, the NTSB acknowledged in this release that "Some of these individuals (witnesses) mentioned observing fire or smoke before the plane impacted the ground, although the majority of them do not. Although at this time no physical evidence of an inflight explosion or fire has been discovered, the Board is taking into full consideration the observations of all witnesses. Witness statements will be made part of the public docket of this investigation." Unfortunately, the wording here raises more concerns which I'll address below. Lastly, the NTSB outlined the status of the Flight Data Recorder (FDR). The NTSB states, "The flight data recorder continues to be analyzed. That process is taking a little longer in this case because signals for some parameters on this aircraft are "filtered" before they reach the flight recorder. The filtering operation is used to smooth data that drive cockpit displays so that the needle (or other indicator) does not jump around. This filtering is accomplished by averaging the data over time. When large, rapid movements are made, this averaging will distort the recorded data; rapid, extreme control movements are clipped off. As a result, the readings on the recorder show what the gauges were telling the pilots, not necessarily what was actually occurring on a real-time basis to the aircraft. This will require some aircraft testing and then further computations by Board staff to get the true readings on some parameters of interest like rudder, elevator, and aileron movement. Although this has added to the workload of investigators, it is not expected to affect the quality or the timing of the Board's final product."
The NTSB recommended in 1994, and it seemed that the FAA concurred
in 1997, that this filtering of data headed to the FDR should
be disabled and the sampling rate increased. This was not done
for AA 587. We can only wonder how many more planes have this
outdated FDR "filter".
Any good email or file server Administrator will have battery backup on their vital computers. But a device that records the final seconds of a plane carrying hundreds of souls apparently does not have such a "feature". The NTSB stated in an earlier press release on November 20th that the FDR ceased recording data 10 seconds before the Cockpit Voice Recorder. The NTSB believes this was due to a loss of electrical power. In addition to the "filtering" or averaging problem with the FDR, the last 10 seconds of the flight data are lost. This makes the eyewitness testimony even more valuable.
On January 4th, Ted Lopatkiewicz of the NTSB informed me that the NTSB had mostly "summaries of witness statements from various law enforcement agencies. We have some written statements given directly to us....We are in the process of sending out letters requesting written statements from several hundred witnesses."
Some witnesses have reported receiving this letter.
On January 7th, several witnesses to the inflight fire or explosion of the plane (some of them adamant this occurred before the tail fin and engines fell off) held a press conference expressing their collective dismay that their accounts seemed to be largely ignored in all public statements made by the NTSB. They announced they had sent a signed petition to the NTSB asking to testify at the first public NTSB hearing on flight 587. It does not appear their request will be granted. The NTSB keeps stating that their "statements will be part of the public docket". The witnesses' press conference on the 7th received good coverage by local TV stations and even Fox News Cable did an evening interview with witness Tom Lynch.
Interestingly, early the next morning, on the 8th ... National Public Radio (NPR) did a report on the Flight 587 investigation. Not once during this segment was any mention made of the witnesses and what they had seen and how that could fit into an accident scenario. Even more interesting were some of the statements made by NTSB Chairman Marion Blakey which seemed to contradict with public statements the NTSB had previously, and subsequently, made. For example, as I stated above ... as of January 4th, the NTSB had mostly "summaries" of witness statements given to them from "other" agencies. Marion Blakey stated on January 8th that the NTSB had "talked to witnesses, many, many witnesses." That statement appears to be in conflict with what Ted Lopatkiewicz had stated. Marion also said the NTSB had "looked, of course, at everything we can from both the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder." Huh?! How could she say that when 1 week later the NTSB makes it clear they are having difficulty extrapolating critical data from an FDR that was basically out of compliance with "filter" standards!?
We know now, on January 15th ... that the NTSB started sending out letters to hundreds of witnesses in early January to expand their understanding of the witness sightings beyond the "summaries" they had from other agencies. We also know the NTSB is having a challenging time extracting ALL the data from the FDR, in addition to having lost the last 10 seconds (or more). In the face of these facts ... and the fact that the FBI had "concluded" early on Nov. 12th that there was an explosion on board (how did the FBI conclude this?), and the fact that scores of witnesses reported on Nov. 12th the sightings of fires and explosions, some adamant they occurred before the tail and engines separated, ... somehow ... the NTSB Chairman informed NPR on January 8th that, and I quote from the NPR transcript, "criminal activity has been all but ruled out". Just like she had said on Nov. 12th. No data then to support that quick judgment. Not enough data now to support the exclusion of that possibility.
The NTSB informed the public of several possible theories over the last 8 weeks: engine failure, birds, wake turbulence, rudder delamination, pilots overusing rudder, etc. In none of these theories have they ever tried to explain where and how what the witnesses saw could fit into their many accident theories. Not once. Why not?
The only mechanical or accident theory that seems to remain that might explain the first, smaller fire seen by the witnesses (within the context we now have that the engines did not have any malfunction or inflight fire), would be compressor stalls. Compressor stalls can generate a fire around the engines that would not be detected during engine teardown. Therefore, it is possible this occurred. But only the FDR can comment on that and the NTSB won't analyze that right now. I believe a mechanical malfunction or accident can explain this terrible disaster. But for the NTSB to rush to judgment as they have from the beginning, and to bad mouth witnesses as "historically inaccurate or unreliable" is very unprofessional behavior.
If compressor stall is disproven as a possible event in this crash, then we're not left with many choices for what could explain fire and explosion aboard a plane, aside from the "T" word.