TWA Flight 800
On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 crashed off the coast of Long Island, New York, killing all 230 people aboard the plane. Although ultimately determined not to be an act of terrorism, initial speculation centered on terrorism as one possible cause of the crash, and the safety of U.S. civil aviation was called into question. The sense of fear grew among some air travelers.
Once again the JTTF ran the investigation. From the start, the FBI and the other members of the ,ITTF worked in tandem with the National Transportation Safety Board. The FBI handpicked special agents from terrorism squads to work on the investigation. Local law enforcement contributed resources, as well. The JTTF attempted to determine whether a criminal act brought down TWA Flight 800.
A 16-month exhaustive investigation followed. In that time period, investigators from the JTTF conducted more than 7,000 interviews that spanned from the shores of Long Island to several foreign countries. Investigators recovered approximately 1 million pieces of the aircraft (about 96 percent of the plane), which bomb technicians and laboratory personnel visually inspected. All 230 victims were recovered and subsequently identified. Experts performed exhaustive analysis and explored all avenues of potential criminality to determine if a bomb or missile could have caused the explosion. The JTTF pursued every lead it found in this case. In the end, no evidence indicated that a criminal act caused the incident.
The JTTF concept again proved its worth. Months of delay in assembling a team and initiating liaison contacts with federal agencies were avoided because the mechanisms already existed. The members of the JTTF took great pride in the thoroughness of their investigation and in allaying the fears of the American public that terrorism caused this tragedy.
Exposing a Terrifying Joke
The year 1997 proved to be a busy one for the JTTF, providing new examples of the benefits the task force concept brings to investigations. In addition to the Empire State Building shooting, the year witnessed a terrorist threat in New York from an unconventional weapon. In March 1997, the suspect of a mail-order fraud case invited the investigating detectives into his residence. The cluttered house contained a large cache of chemicals, gasoline, and fuel additives. The suspect told investigators that he used these products to make "super fuel" for the model airplanes that he raced. However, he offered no explanation for the far more ominous canister clearly marked "Sarin Gas" that the detectives also found in the house. They immediately exited the house and called for hazardous materials support personnel.
Sarin gas is a highly toxic; chemical nerve agent. On March 20, 1995, a Japanese terrorist group dispersed Sarin gas in three Tokyo subway lines at the height of morning rush hour. Twelve people died as a result, and 5,500 people required medical treatment.
Fearing that they had discovered a potential weapon of mass destruction, the JTTF responded and. conferred with ranking police and emergency management personnel on the scene. The NYPD's elite hazardous materials team, the Emergency Service Unit (ESU), entered the house and safely contained the canister. Because no facilities in the city existed to safely perform the tests needed to identify the contents of the canister, the ESU transported the canister to the NYPD's outdoor range in the Bronx. The JTTF followed established procedures and contacted the U.S. Army Technical Escort Unit in Aberdeen, Maryland, which immediately dispatched a team to the Bronx location.
Once the technical escort team contained the canister in its own cylinder, they boarded a military aircraft, which flew the team and their potentially deadly package back to Aberdeen. Tests performed there revealed the canister to be empty. The suspect had told investigators the truth-that he had labeled the canister Sarin gas as a joke. He was arrested on numerous theft charges, the neighborhood returned to normal, and police, fire, and city officials breathed a sigh of relief. The incident proved a good exercise for everyone involved and served as another example of the contacts and services the JTTF can provide.