ASHBURN, Va. — The investigation of the TWA Flight 800 explosion was the most expensive and highest profile crash probe ever conducted by U.S. safety and law enforcement investigators.
But investigators believe they can use the debris recovered from the crash as the centerpiece of a new training facility.
It took more than four years and at least $35 million to determine that a buildup of fuel vapors likely caused an explosion in the jumbo jet's center fuel tank, a finding facilitated by the painstaking reconstruction of the wreckage.
That wreckage, so critical in determining probable cause of the crash that killed 230 people in July 1996, is stored for $400,000 a year in a hangar in Long Island, abandoned by the carrier and insurers and now the responsibility of the federal government.
But the National Transportation Safety Board has plans to make novel use of it as the centerpiece of a training academy set to break ground here Thursday.
"There was a tremendous amount of funds being spent for the housing of that wreckage," NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said of the 93-foot section of reconstructed aircraft and boxes of other stored debris. "We took those funds and leveraged them into this new training academy."
Hall will preside over groundbreaking ceremonies on his last day at the safety board. He was an activist chairman who presided over the TWA investigation and three other major air crash probes.
His permanent successor will be named by President-elect George W. Bush.
The multimillion-dollar NTSB Academy will be built by George Washington University on its satellite campus in Ashburn, Va. The federal government will lease it for 20 years for $2.5 million per year. The school's aviation institute, which studies safety and security issues, is at the same site.
The NTSB facility is scheduled to open in 2003, and will include a two-floor building with classrooms, a lecture hall, laboratories and office space. Another building will house the TWA wreckage.
"TWA is a very large and very complex system," said NTSB project manager Robert Gilson. "It's a big vehicle and there are an awful lot of things we can use it for."
He and other officials at the NTSB stressed the academy will serve as an investigative tool for U.S. and international investigators, not a museum or a facility for the public.
"The goal is to teach people who will do these investigations what to look for, what kind of questions to ask," Gilson said. "The bottom line is we investigate accidents."