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On a Long Island beach at dusk, Bob Mitchell and JanetWhitney conduct their illicit love affair in front of a video camera, set to record each steamy moment. Suddenly a terrible explosion lights up the sky. Grabbing the camera, the couple flees as approaching police cars speed toward the scene. Five years later, the crash of Flight 800 has been attributed to a mechanical mal-function.
But for John Corey and Kate Mayfield, both members of the Elite Anti-terrorist Task Force, the case is not closed. Suspecting a cover-up at the highest levels and disobeying orders, they set out to find the one piece of evidence that will prove the truth about what really happened to Flight 800-the videotape that shows a couple making love on the beach and the last moments of the doomed airliner.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Radiant Angel
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This is a work of fiction, based on fact: the crash of TWA Flight 800 that occurred off Long Island, New York, on July 17, 1996.
The characters in this novel are fictional, though there are passing references to actual persons.
The events of July 17, 1996, that I describe in this book, and the subsequent investigation of the crash, are based on published accounts as well as my own interviews with investigators who worked on this case, and my interviews with eyewitnesses to the crash.
The official cause of the crash is mechanical failure, though there are conflicting theories that point toward more sinister causes of this tragedy. I've tried to represent all sides of this controversy, and to be accurate in regard to the eyewitness accounts, the forensic evidence, and the details of the subsequent investigation. I have, however, taken dramatic liberties and literary license in cases where there is conflicting evidence.
This book is in memory of the passengers and crew of TWA Flight 800, who lost their lives on the evening of July 17, 1996, and to their families and loved ones as well as to the hundreds of men and women who participated in the rescue and recovery and the subsequent investigations of the cause of this tragedy.
On the night of July 16, 1996, Trans World Airlines Flight 800, a Boeing 747, took off from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport at 8:19 P.M. with 230 passengers and crew, bound for Paris.
At about the same time, I was sitting on the rear deck of a summer rental house in Southold, Long Island. It was twilight, and the evening was balmy and still. I could hear crickets and frogs, and see deer grazing about thirty feet from the deck.
At about 8:27 P.M., TWA Flight 800 was cruising at eleven thousand feet above the Atlantic Ocean, eight miles off the south coast of Long Island.
I popped open a cold beer and put my feet on the rail. This was a working holiday; I was writing a novel (which was later to be titled Plum Island), and most of the book was set in the immediate vicinity of where I'd rented the house. The seclusion and quiet of the house was good for the writing, and the proximity to the world of the book was good for the research.
At 8:28 P.M., the 747's cockpit voice recorder picked up the pilot, Captain Ralph Kevorkian, saying, "Look at the crazy fuel-flow indicator there on number four (engine). See that crazy fuel-flow indicator?" Neither the co-pilot nor the flight engineer responded.
The writing had gone well that day, as it had most days. I was alone, working ten-hour days, six or seven days a week. I would have worked the previous Sunday, July 14, but instead I drove back to western Long Island where I lived, picked up my daughter, Lauren, and took her to Kennedy Airport.
Lauren and a number of other college students were going to Paris for a summer study program. When we arrived at the terminal, we discovered that TWA Flight 800 was going to be over an hour late for departure. There were a lot of young people and their parents milling around, and a TWA representative came over to us and said that the flight would definitely take off, so if the parents wanted to leave, that was okay. I decided to stay, but after an hour, and more assurances that the flight would get off, I reluctantly said goodbye and left, telling my daughter to call my cell phone if the flight was cancelled. I drove the two hours back to my summer rental without getting a call.
It was now two days later, at 8:30 P.M., on the night of July 17, 1996, and TWA Flight 800—also over an hour late on departure—received a call from Boston air traffic control giving instructions to climb to fifteen thousand feet. The copilot, Captain Steven Snyder, acknowledged, and the pilot, Captain Kevorkian, said, "Climb thrust. Climb to one five thousand." The flight engineer, Oliver Krick, said, "Power's set." And those were the last recorded words. At 8:31 P.M., the aircraft exploded.
Sound travels a great distance from that altitude over the water, especially at night, and thousands of people on the eastern end of Long Island heard the explosion. Also, people from as far away as Connecticut saw the sky light up.
Thinking back on it, if I did notice any flash of light in the sky, it was a subliminal awareness, and I may have thought it was heat lightning. As for the sound wave, I was either too far away or, if the distant sound did reach me, it was masked by the cacophony of crickets, frogs, and night birds.
At about 9:30, I heard the phone ring, and went inside. It was my ex-wife, my daughter's mother. She asked excitedly, "Did you hear that Flight 800 crashed?"
I was completely speechless, and also confused and stunned. Our daughter had left three days ago. What was she saying? All I was able to say was "Lauren." She continued, "Yes, Lauren's flight. About an hour ago. Off the coast. No one knows what happened. Turn on the news."
I hung up and turned on the local TV news. A reporter somewhere along the Atlantic Coast was saying it appeared that a small plane had collided with the jumbo jet. That was the first, but by no means the last, inaccurate, contradictory, and implausible thing said about the crash of TWA Flight 800.
I poured myself a Scotch, sat down, and channel-surfed through the news stations until well after midnight. Very early in the morning, I called my daughter's dorm in Paris just to hear her voice, but she'd already gone to class, so I left a message, which was "I love you."
Flash-forward two years. I was researching my novel The Lion's Game, and since the book deals with Mideast terrorism, I was interviewing a number of men and women from the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). During one of my conversations with an FBI agent, I asked off-handedly, "Anything new on TWA 800?"
The guy I was interviewing replied with his own question: "What does that have to do with Mideast terrorism?"
I said, "There are a lot of people who believe the plane was brought down by a missile."
He replied, "It was brought down by a mechanical malfunction. A center fuel tank explosion. That's the official cause of the crash. An accident."
"That's all I'm going to say about that."
Needless to say, I got interested. In fact, by his tone of voice and demeanor, it was obvious that he thought—or knew—there was more to this.
In subsequent interviews with other people working in counter-terrorism, I always asked about TWA 800, though it had nothing to do with the subject of my book. Each time I asked, I got reactions ranging from "I don't know; I didn't work the case," to "I'm not at liberty to discuss that," or "There's a lot written about that crash. Do some reading."
And I did. Also, I was lucky enough one day to interview a retired NYPD detective who had been a member of the federal JTTF and who had worked the case. Because he was retired, and because he wasn't FBI, he was willing to talk. His work on the TWA 800 case had consisted mostly of interviewing some of the nearly 250 witnesses who had actually seen the explosion.
The early media stories all reported that many witnesses claimed they'd seen a streak of light—like a missile—rising toward the aircraft just before it exploded. Later reporting either discounted or downplayed these eyewitness reports, especially in light of the official investigation, which concluded it was a mechanical malfunction that caused the aircraft to explode.
Specifically, forensic evidence pointed to a spark in the center fuel tank caused, possibly, by a short circuit in the fuel gauge wire. The center fuel tank on that flight was nearly empty, and the theory was that because the 747 had sat on the hot tarmac so long before the delayed departure, the residual fuel had become volatile, either because of the air temperature or because the air-conditioning unit that sat below the fuel tank had gotten hot as it was running so long on the ground. Add to that a stray electrical spark, and the volatile fumes exploded. There was no direct evidence of this aside from the uncontested fact that the explosion originated in the vicinity of the nearly empty center fuel tank. There was absolutely no forensic evidence of a bomb on board or a missile hitting the aircraft. Therefore, according to the investigators, the explosion must have been caused by a short-circuiting wire.
Unfortunately, any evidence of a short circuit had been destroyed along with the fuel tank and the aircraft.
The guy I was speaking to, however—a detective who was used to interviewing witnesses—was convinced that the two dozen people he had interviewed saw something. The question was, and remains to this day: What did those people see? What was that streak of light?
I completed the research for The Lion's Game and finished the book, which was published in 2000. In the book, I make a passing reference to TWA 800. It was still on my mind.
My next book, Up Country, published in 2001, got away from the subject of terrorism and was based on my experience in Vietnam in 1968 and my return as a tourist in 1997. Although I'd gotten away from terrorism, it had not gone away from us, and on September 11, 2001, Mideast terrorism arrived in America.
This was not, however, the first foreign terrorist attack on American soil. On February 26, 1993, Mideast terrorists had planted a car bomb in the basement of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring hundreds more. So the events of September 11, 2001, were called the second attack on America by foreign terrorists.
Or was it the third? That depended on what you believed happened to TWA Flight 800.
I had discussed this with my childhood friend and US Airways captain Thomas Block. Tom was also my co-author on Mayday, and he had written novels of his own. He was an aviation columnist and my technical research guy. Mayday, published in 1979, dealt with a U.S. Navy air-to-air missile accidentally hitting a commercial jetliner, so Tom and I had a little research under our belts on this subject.
Despite some uncanny similarities between our fictional account of a missile striking a commercial airliner in Mayday—which incidentally became a CBS-TV movie in 2005—and what some people said may have happened to the 747, Tom leaned toward the official conclusion that TWA 800 was brought down by a mechanical malfunction. He reminded me that the investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, local and state police, and the Central Intelligence Agency had been exhaustive, professional, and (almost) conclusive.
Yet doubts still remained in Tom's mind and in the minds of a good percentage of the American public. Did the investigation miss an important clue that would point to terrorism—the missile theory? Or did the government know what happened, and were they covering it up? Was it, as some people suggested, friendly fire? As in Mayday, the U.S. Navy had been conducting war games in the area that night, so it was possible that a Navy surface-to-air or air-to-air missile had accidentally hit the TWA Boeing 747. But not probable. A cover-up of that magnitude was hard to believe and happens mostly in fiction.
The theories, the doubts, and the questions were fading from the public mind until that September day in 2001.
It took a few weeks or months after September 11 for some journalists and pundits to make some references to, then connections between, TWA 800 and September 11. What had seemed far-fetched five years before now became a possibility.
At the urging of the retired NYPD/JTTF man I'd spoken to, I obtained some transcripts of witness interviews under the Freedom of Information Act.
As I was reading the transcripts of these interviews, which were conducted within hours and days of the TWA 800 crash, what struck me most was how similar these eyewitness accounts were; all the people described where they were on that pleasant summer evening and what they were doing—boating, swimming, barbecuing, playing the last hole on the golf course, and so forth—and then, what they saw. And what they saw was a streak of light, described by some as "fiery" or "incandescent" or "very bright," rising from the ocean at a high speed. The words rocket and missile were used often, though not by every witness.
The next thing everyone saw was a huge explosion in the southern sky. Then, pieces of fiery debris falling, and what some described as streams of burning fuel, followed by the sound of the explosion from eight miles away. Then the calm ocean was ablaze.
Although these eyewitness accounts were not totally consistent, most of the major elements were similar, especially with regard to the midair explosion and the aftermath. So, for the most part, this element of the tragedy—the mid-air explosion—was accepted by the government investigators and the news media and the public.
It was, however, the streak of light preceding the explosion that was a problem. Initially, the investigation focused on terrorism because of these eyewitness reports. But as the weeks and months passed, the word from the investigation team shifted the suspicion to a mechanical malfunction. Ultimately, this was the official conclusion, and the eyewitness accounts of the fiery streak of light were discounted.
Yet as I read the five-year-old transcripts, I started to wonder how so many witnesses saw the same thing, and why what they saw—the streak of light—was ignored or discounted as an optical illusion.
By now, of course, I was considering writing a novel based on the crash of TWA Flight 800. But I'd never written a book of fiction based almost entirely on a real incident, and I didn't want to exploit the tragedy with some sort of Oliver Stone–like faction account of what might have happened. Also, I wasn't entirely sure that the official conclusion of mechanical failure wasn't the correct conclusion.
Then two things happened that pushed me toward taking another look at this mystery—if, in fact, it was a mystery. And as with many things that change your mind in a big way, these were relatively small things.
The first was a dinner with a friend, Captain Jack Clary, who was a TWA international pilot. Jack retired not long after the TWA crash, and, of course, he knew nearly all the cockpit and cabin crew members on TWA 800. He had also flown that same flight many times, and he had actually flown that very airplane back from Paris just two days before the crash.
I asked him about the "crazy" fuel-flow indicator that Captain Kevorkian had commented on. He replied that if you believed every indication of every instrument on the panel, you'd never take off. This seemed to me a little unsettling, but he was a highly respected pilot with almost forty years' experience, so I accepted his reply.
Next I asked him what he thought had caused the crash of TWA 800. He replied, "I don't know what it was, but I know what it wasn't. It wasn't a short-circuit spark in the center fuel tank." He added, "That kind of thing doesn't happen—hell, it was only a six-amp probe. If it could happen, it would have happened years before and years after." He further added, "It's five years since the crash. Do you see the FAA requiring any remedial action on the center fuel tank of the 747s?"
"I don't know."
"Well, they haven't. They even tried to re-create that scenario afterward, but never could get the fuel fumes to ignite. So no changes were ever made to the 747 fleet. What does that tell you?"
"I don't know."
And we left it there.
The second thing that pushed me away from the conclusion of mechanical failure, and toward something else, was a chance encounter with a neighbor. This, too, had to do with dinner. I was walking into a restaurant when I saw this neighbor, his wife, and two of their children at a table. After hellos and small talk, he asked me, "What are you working on now?"
I replied, "I'm thinking of writing a novel based on the crash of TWA 800."
The two adults and two children suddenly became quiet and glanced at one another, and my first thought was that they'd lost a loved one in the crash, so I said, "But I'm not sure I want to do that."
After a second or two, my neighbor said, "We saw that. We were on our boat that night."
His wife added, "We were with another couple and their kids. We all saw it."
The two children at the table nodded.
This wasn't the time or place for an interview, so I said, "Well, is it okay if I call you?"
The man said, "Sure," then went into a brief account of what they'd all seen. His wife added to it and so did the two kids who, though five years younger at the time, had pretty distinct memories of what they'd seen. It was clear that this tragedy had deeply affected all of them.
I listened to this extemporaneous and obviously upsetting account of these four eyewitnesses to the crash of TWA Flight 800.
Their observations that night began with one of the kids saying something like, "Look, a skyrocket." And everyone on the boat—four adults and about five children—watched as a streak of light rose off the water and headed into the sky.
You can listen to secondhand accounts of a major disaster—like my interviewing the law enforcement interviewers who'd taken eyewitness statements—and you can read transcripts of those eyewitness statements, but when you hear it firsthand from people you know and trust and who have nothing to gain by embellishing, then all of a sudden, it becomes real.
As I listened, I also thought about my daughter being on that same flight three days earlier and about my chance proximity to where the crash occurred, and about my inquiries and thoughts over the years about what could have brought down this 747 with 230 people on board.
By the time I sat down to dinner, I knew I was going to write about what happened on that summer night in 1996.
July 17, 1996
LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK
For this must ever be
A secret, kept from all the rest,
Between yourself and me.
LEWIS CARROLL, Alice in Wonderland
Bud Mitchell drove his Ford Explorer along Dune Road. Up ahead was a sign that said CUPSOGUE BEACH COUNTY PARK—OPEN DAWN TO DUSK. It was dusk, but Bud drove through an empty parking field, on the far side of which was a wide nature trail, partially blocked by a roll-up fence. A sign said NO VEHICLES.
He said to the woman sitting in his passenger seat, "Are you sure you want to do this?"
Jill Winslow replied, "Yes. It's exciting."
Bud nodded without enthusiasm. He skirted around the fence and continued on in four-wheel drive along the sandy trail flanked by high, grass-covered dunes.
Having extramarital sex should have been exciting enough for both of them, he thought, but Jill didn't see it that way. For her, cheating on her husband was only worth it if the sex, romance, and excitement were better than at home. For him, the taboo of having sex with another man's wife was the turn-on.
Somewhere around his fortieth birthday, Bud Mitchell had come to the startling conclusion that women were different. Now, five years later and two years into this affair, he realized that Jill's fantasies and his weren't communicating very well. Still, Jill Winslow was beautiful, willing, and most important, she was someone else's wife, and she wanted to keep it that way. For him, safe sex meant having it with a married woman.
An added kick for Bud was that he and his wife, Arlene, traveled in the same social circles as Jill and her husband, Mark. When the four of them were together at a social function, Bud felt the opposite of awkward or guilty; he felt terrific, his ego knew no bounds, and he reveled in his secret knowledge that he had seen every inch of the beautiful Jill Winslow's naked body.
But, it wasn't that secret, of course, or it wouldn't have been so much fun. Early in the affair, when they were both nervous about getting caught, they'd sworn to each other that they wouldn't tell anyone. Since then, they'd both hinted that they'd had to confide in close friends solely for the purpose of providing cover stories for their absences from home and hearth. Bud always wondered who among her friends knew. At social gatherings he had fun trying to guess.
They had driven in separate cars from their homes on Long Island's Gold Coast, about fifty-five miles from Westhampton, and Jill had parked in a village lot where they'd rendezvoused, then driven to a hotel together in Bud's Explorer. At the hotel, Bud had asked her what her cover story was and gotten a one-word answer, so he asked again, "Where are you tonight?"
"Dinner with a girlfriend who has a place in East Hampton. Shopping tomorrow." She added, "That part is true, since you have to get home in the morning."
"The friend is cool with this?"
She let out an exasperated breath. "Yes. Don't worry about it."
"Okay." Bud noticed that she never asked about his cover story, as if the less she knew, the better. He volunteered, "I'm deep-sea fishing with friends. Bad cell phone reception on the ocean."
Bud Mitchell understood that in their own way, both he and Jill loved their slightly boring spouses, they loved their children, and their comfortable upper-middle-class lives. They also loved each other, or said they did, but not enough to chuck everything to be together seven days a week. Three or four times a month seemed to be good enough.
The trail ended at a sand dune, and Bud stopped.
Jill said, "Go toward the beach."
Bud turned off the sandy trail toward the ocean.
The Explorer descended a gradual slope through brush and sea grass as he steered around a high dune. He stopped on the far side of the dune where the vehicle couldn't be seen from the trail. His dashboard clock read 7:22.
The sun was sinking over the Atlantic Ocean, and he noticed that the ocean itself was smooth as a pond. The sky was clear except for some scattered clouds.
He said to Jill, "Nice night."
She opened her door and got out. Bud turned off the engine and followed her.
They surveyed the expanse of white sand beach that ended at the ocean's edge fifty yards away. The water sparkled with golden flecks in the setting sun and a soft land breeze rustled the sea oats on the dunes.
Bud looked around to see if they were alone. Dune Road was the only way in or out of this barrier island, and he'd seen a few cars leaving the beaches and heading back toward Westhampton, but no cars traveling in their direction.
The thin island ended a hundred yards to the west at Moriches Inlet, and on the other side of the inlet he could see the edge of Smith Point County Park on Fire Island.
It was Wednesday, so the Hampton weekenders were back in the city, and anyone left was deep into the cocktail hour. Plus, it was about a half mile back to where vehicles were supposed to stop. Bud said, "I guess we have the beach to ourselves."
"That's what I told you."
Jill went around the Explorer and opened the rear hatch. Bud joined her and together they removed a few items, including a blanket, an ice chest, a video camera, and a tripod.
They found a sheltered valley between two grassy dunes, and Jill laid out the blanket and cooler while Bud set up the tripod and video camera. He took off the lens cap, looked through the viewfinder, and pointed the camera at Jill sitting cross-legged and barefoot on the blanket. The last glimmers of red sunlight illuminated the scene, and Bud adjusted the zoom lens and hit the Record button.
He joined Jill on the blanket as she uncorked a bottle of white wine. He took two wineglasses from the ice chest and she poured.
They clinked glasses, and Bud said, "To summer evenings, to us, together." They drank and kissed.
They were both aware of the video camera recording their images and voices, and they were a little self-conscious. Jill broke the ice by saying, "So, do you come here often?"
Bud smiled and replied, "First time. How about you?"
They smiled at each other and the silence became almost awkward. Bud didn't like the camera pointing at them, but he could see the upside later when they got back to their hotel room in Westhampton and played the tape while they had sex in bed. Maybe this wasn't such a bad idea.
They had a second glass of wine, and aware that the light was fading, Jill got down to business. She set her glass on the cooler, stood, and pulled off her knit top.
Bud stood and took off his shirt.
Jill dropped her khaki shorts and kicked them away. She stood there a few seconds in her bra and panties as Bud got undressed, then she took off her bra and slid her panties off. She faced the camera, threw her arms in the air, did a few gyrations, then said, "Ta da!" and bowed toward the camera.
They embraced and kissed, and their hands ran over each other's bare body.
Jill moved Bud at right angles to the lens, then looked back at the camera and said, "Blow job. Take One." She dropped to her knees and began to perform oral sex on him.
Bud got very stiff while his knees went rubbery. He didn't know what to do with his hands, so he put them on her head and ran his fingers through her straight brown hair.
Bud forced a smile, knowing the camera was capturing the expression on his face, and he wanted to look happy when they played it back later. But, in truth, he felt somewhere between silly and uncomfortable.
He could be a little raunchy in mixed company, while she was usually soft-spoken and demure, with an occasional smile or witticism. In bed, however, he was still surprised at her sexual nuttiness.
She sensed he was about to come, and she rocked back on her haunches and said, "That's a wrap. Scene Two. Wine, please."
Bud retrieved the bottle of wine.
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