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Partial Text of Article Published in The Washington Times

September 27, 1997

William S. Donaldson says the "misted fuel" in the airliner's center wing tank wasn't hot
enough to explode and that only a blast outside the plane could have set off the chain of events.

Legislator Probes TWA 800 Countertheory

Congress has quietly begun probing a retired Navy officer's claim that jet fuel in TWA flight 800's center wing tank was too cold to explode without being first shaken into a volatile mist.   William S. Donaldson's assertion challenges virtually every remaining theory of the NTSB in its search for the cause of the July 17 .... crash. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., Ohio Democrat, who has been probing the issue virtually alone, was asked by aviation subcommittee Chairman John J. Duncan Jr., Tennessee Republican to "investigate all the circumstances" and report back. Mr. Duncan ordered staff help for Mr. Traficant, whose staff has consulted with Mr. Donaldson. "You could basically sit in that tank with a lit cigarette and snuff the cigarette out in the fuel and it won't explode," said Paul Marcone, Mr.. Traficant's top aide. "Your agency has been depicting the volatility of the fuel as if it were nitrobenzene," the former navy jet pilot said in a combative letter to NTSB Chairman James E. Hall, accusing him of covering up important facts and basing his judgments on fuel-temperature testing done on the ground in a desert. he said the fuel never reached the danger point of 127 degrees Fahrenheit and believes only an explosion outside the plane could have set off the chain of events. Mr. Hall has listed that critical point at 116 degrees, but no numbers now are being confirmed pending new studies at California Institute of Technology. In a detailed letter to Mr. Donaldson on Sept. 11, Mr. Hall said flight tests aboard a similar 747 prove that "air-fuel vapor" in the tank - called ullage- can be hot enough to explode. Mr. Hall says possible ignition sources aboard the plane include short circuits, flame traveling through a vent from a surge tank on the right wing, or static electricity sparking from a fuel pump in the nearly dry tank. Yesterday the agency also acknowledged the possibility that high voltage was transmitted into the tank through low-voltage circuits by faulty wiring, as reported Wednesday by CBS News. "these flight tests have shown that temperature of the vapors in the ullage of the nearly empty fuel tank can be well above the explosive limit," Mr. Hall said. It is not clear what difference is implied between what Mr. Hall calls "air-fuel vapor" and what Mr. Donaldson calls "misted fuel," similar to droplets produced by a fuel injector. NTSB spokesman Peter Goelz relied on general agreement among aviation professionals that the center wing tank was "in an explosive condition" and sought to dismiss proddings by the retired commander, who said his military duties included crash investigation and flight safety. "There was a certainty in Commander Donaldson's numbers that have shifted, that surprised us, and it is an area that is uncertain," Mr. Goelz said, citing one Donaldson letter that said fuel would have to be at 160 degrees to explode. "When breaking new ground, it's not enough to look at a text-book," Mr. Goelz said. he said the NTSB contracted for research of the fuel's explosive properties by Joseph Shepard at Cal Tech. Before his crusade, Mr. Donaldson said that "they're trying to convince the public they can boil water at 50 degrees." Mr. Donaldson's effort, based originally on data from a 1988 technical manual but revised over the months, was mingled with vituperative language that Mr. Hall took as a charge he is covering up a criminal act, perhaps by terrorists with missiles. Asked about this, Mr. Donaldson said:  " I'm not mincing any words about this. It's a cover-up of basically an act of war by a foreign enemy, so far unidentified." Mr. Hall called the charge a disservice to federal investigators.

Go to ABC News: A "Bomb" in Every Jumbo Jet

Go to the Donaldson File Index