Paris meeting renews interest in TWA Flight 800


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TWA Flight 800






© 2005

In the early morning hours of April 19, retired United Airline Capt. Ray Lahr left his Malibu home for a trip to Los Angeles International Airport, and beyond that to Paris. He arrived in France on the morning of April 20.

Michel Breistroff met him at the airport in his high-end Jaguar. Some 10 years prior, then still in his early 50s, Breistroff retired so that he could follow the career of his son, also named Michel, who starred on the Harvard hockey team and then on the French national team. He loved the boy dearly and was devastated when young Michel died aboard the Paris-bound TWA Flight 800 on the night of July 17, 1996. He has been on a mission ever since.

Michel and Ray met me at my hotel. I am not easily impressed, but Breistroff is an impressive gentleman. He is tall, movie-star good looking, and capable of pulling a U-turn on Montparnasse Boulevard in his Jag without breaking a sweat. Still, one cannot fail but to see the ineffable sadness in his eyes. There is no forgetting the loss of a son.

Lahr, whom I had met before, is a work of nature. I have never asked him his age, but I know he joined the Navy Air Corps in 1943. Do your math. For all that, he looks 60, is trim, tan and plays, I am told, a mean game of tennis. With the death of Cmdr. Bill Donaldson nearly five years ago, Lahr has emerged as the leader of the ongoing dissident investigation into the demise of TWA Flight 800. His good-natured persistence has helped pull the various factions together in their collective effort to break the case open before the 10th anniversary next year.

Together, we journeyed to the aptly named Cafe des Delices in Paris's sixth arrondissement. There, we met with four French journalists who have helped spark a renewed interest in the case on the French side. These were Alain Gliksman, a retired publisher who has been keeping an active file since the disaster. Patrick Jean-Baptiste and Elena Sender, who have been writing about the case for Sciences et Avenir (Science and the Future), a glossy science publication, and Pierre-Emmanuel Luneau-Daurignac, who just produced a documentary on TWA Flight 800 for a major French network. Breistroff, in fact, had appeared in studio on camera after the showing of the well-produced feature to talk about it and the future of the investigation. He seemed neither optimistic, nor pessimistic, merely determined.

The tone of the French documentary resembled that of the recent History Channel feature. Both treat the dissident position as respectfully as they treat the official one, but neither comes to any conclusion or demands a call to action. Although impressed with the production, Breistroff was disappointed in the lack of resolution.

Still, say what you will about the French, had our major media pursued the case with half the candor that theirs have, the case would have been solved a long time ago. I have been rereading the Paris Match articles from 1996-1997, and they make their American equivalents – Newsweek and the New York Times in particular – look timid and amateurish by comparison.

I asked Luneau-Daurignac, who interviewed the FBI's Jim Kallstrom, among others, what impressions he took away from the interviews. His answer intrigued me. He said that just about everyone who supported the government position insisted on wiggle room. Their comments, he told me, were constantly prefaced by phrases like "as far as we know" or "with the evidence at hand."

On camera, Kallstrom seems, as he usually does, sweaty and uncomfortable. I have written in the past that the Clinton Justice Department got to Kallstrom five weeks into the investigation and compelled him to abandon his search for the truth. I do not pretend to know what combination of threats and cajolements they offered, but they obviously succeeded.

Kallstrom's role in this charade weighed more heavily on him than on anyone else for one very good reason: He was the primary contact person with the families. He had felt the angst – in his own words – "of walking into a Ramada Inn on Day No. 2 or 3, and seeing a thousand-plus people who had just lost their daughter or their son, a mother or father in some cases, the entire family."

In the first five weeks, he did an excellent job of establishing rapport and promising answers. He was seeking the truth, and the families could sense it. In the months and years after those first five weeks, he continued in this intimate role with the families, but he now was only feigning an interest in the truth. This role had to have been torturous for him. As representative of the French families, Breistroff got to know Kallstrom, trusted him, and only reluctantly came to the realization that his trust was being betrayed.

I shared with Breistroff and the others Kallstrom's comments from the morning of Sept. 11. "We need to stop the hypocrisy," he told Dan Rather before catching himself and adding without conviction, "not that hypocrisy got us to this day. I'm not saying it did."

For all the progress made during our luncheon, a break in this case will likely come from some personal interaction. A Michel Breistroff will somehow get to a Jim Kallstrom and persuade him to tell the truth. The nature of that truth is simple enough. Those who know it can explain what happened to TWA Flight 800 in a sentence, and it has nothing to do with frayed wires.

I would not discount Ray Lahr's efforts either. After the wine-drenched three-hour luncheon, and now at least 24 hours without sleep, Ray refused my suggestion that he take a nap and opted instead for a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower. "It's a few miles away," I said, "How about if I call a cab." "No," he said, "let's walk."

Fortunately, Ray let me take the elevator to the top. We walked about five more miles afterward, before we kicked back with a few beers, some very good food, and a little innocent (I think) flirtation with the waitresses.

Lahr is not the kind of guy to give up either.



Posted: May 13, 2005
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About Mega Fix:

In this stunning, surprisingly entertaining, 90-minute DVD video documentary, Emmy-award-winning filmmaker Jack Cashill traces the roots of Sept. 11 to the perfect storm of disinformation that surrounded the Clintons' desperate drive for the White House in the years 1995-1996.

Cashill leads the viewer from Oklahoma City to Dubrovnik, where Ron Brown's plane crashed, to the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia to the destruction of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island to the Olympic Park bombing. Jack Cashill's "Mega Fix" DVD is now available.

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