Head of FBI Probe Into TWA 800 Crash Dies, Leaves Mixed Legacy

July 6, 2021 / 2 Comments

This post has been updated to included confirmation of Kallstrom’s death and details concerning the cause of death.

James Kallstrom, the 78-year old former head of the New York office of the FBI, died on July 3rd. According to the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, Kallstrom struggled for six years with an illness related to his exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam in the sixties.

Edmond J. Boran, the foundation’s president told me Wednesday morning that Kallstrom’s exposure in 1966 and 1967 only began to trouble him fifty years later when a mysterious rash appeared on his upper torso. He was treated with chemotherapy. When it was temporarily halted to deal with Lyme disease, he was not able to recover from the interruption in chemotherapy treatment, Boran said.

When I first saw the news of Kallstrom’s death, I could find no official confirmation. I presumed the news to be accurate knowing also that if Kallstrom had a chance to tell reporters they were wrong, he would not hesitate to do so.

The arc of Kallstrom’s career in law enforcement crested in 1996 when he spent 16 months supervising the investigation into the crash of TWA Flight 800.  Much has happened in the 25-years since the Boeing 747 exploded shortly after taking off from Kennedy Airport killing all 230 people aboard. At the time though, the story was huge. Like the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 eighteen years later, the crash of TWA 800 dominated the news, day after day for months on end and triggered fantastical conspiracy theories that still cloud the official account of what happened.

The story was so big and the press attention so vast. That explains in part why Kallstrom was loath to step back from his role as head of the criminal investigation even after it was clear the disaster was not the result of a crime.  Flight 800, a half-full Boeing 747 took off from JFK headed for Paris. Thirteen minutes later a blast ripped through the airplane’s center fuel tank, severing the cockpit and first-class section and sending it into the Atlantic. The aft end of the airplane went into a brief ascent before a second fireball erupted from the atomized fuel spewing from the ruptured tanks and this fell into the ocean in pieces.

Within days, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were concluding that some internal problem triggered the explosion. After 6 months, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms weighed in with a similar opinion. “We have evidence of possible design flaws” on Boeing airplanes, wrote ATF assistant director Andrew Vita to his boss.

But Kallstrom would not budge. In December 1996, the NTSB’s Bernie Loeb told the CBS News program 60 minutes, that the crash was probably caused by a mechanical issue and the safety board issued emergency recommendations targeting the practice of flying 747s and other models of airliners with nearly empty fuel tanks.

As I wrote in Deadly Departure, the NTSB’s position sent Kallstrom into a fury. He called up 60 Minutes and asked that his position be included in the broadcast, which it was. At the same time, he complained to (NTSB chairman Jim) Hall that the agency’s speculation jeopardized the criminal investigation.

Hall was having none of it. He felt Kallstrom was responsible for some of the most damaging speculation by saying in the early days that he was going to find a “Eureka” piece that he was going to find the “cowards responsible”.  The FBI sure had benefited from the bluster. The Aviation Security and Terrorism Act, provided millions of dollars to the FBI and expanding antiterrorism measures, had passed Congress with help from Kallstrom’s testimony.

Reached at his home on Tuesday night, Hall expressed respect for Kallstrom.

“As someone who has a great respect for politics, I did see that was very politically savvy.” He added that the FBI boss’s apparent conviction that a bomb or missile brought down the jumbo jet, lengthened the investigation.

“His commitment to expanding the TWA investigation brought an appropriation of $200 million to the FBI when they were trying to get a focus back on terrorism after the first World Trade Center (attack),” Hall reminded me. “You have to go back and recapture what the mood was and what the scene was at the moment.”

The summer of 1997, I was in France, interviewing the parents of Daniel Cremades, a 15-year old who died in the crash. Daniel’s mother, Ana Vila, was as buoyed as is possible for a woman who has lost her only son, by the news she got from the FBI that soon the investigation would be turned over to the professional air safety experts. But it did not happen for another half year.

In a widely publicized news conference in November 1997, Kallstrom told reporters every piece of evidence had been looked at and no evidence of a crime could be found. By then, however, it was too late. Having been treated roughshod by overwhelming numbers of FBI agents, the dispute among the feuding agencies was taken up by a Congressional inquiry in 1999.

Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, called the crash investigation led by Kallstrom, “a model of failure.” And blamed the bureau for suppressing the ATF report and risking public safety.

By that time, Kallstrom had retired from the FBI and taken a job where other FBI agents were pursuing second careers, as executives with the bank, MBNA, now known as Bank of America.

Despite the criticism, Kallstrom remained a go-to talking head on the crash of TWA Flight 800 and the subject of a fawning book on the false leads and dead ends he and his agents pursued while the NTSB was inspecting aircraft wiring and conducting tests in fuel tank flammability that led to new rules in 2006 to prevent fuel tank explosions on thousands of Boeing aircraft.

Bob Swaim examining wiring from TWA Flight 800 (1997)

Only on learning of Kallstrom’s death did I discover that in the Trump years, he returned to the limelight, as a Fox News expert on FBI morale. According to the Daily Beast reporter, Wayne Barrett the dawn of the Trump Presidency brought Kallstrom to the sets of various Fox programs to report on the ire of FBI agents displeased with investigations into Donald Trump and former FBI director James Comey.

In a statement on its Facebook page, the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation wrote, “Jim’s relationships with Rush Limbaugh, a strong supporter of our cause, and Fox News have given him the opportunity to show appreciation to MC-LEF’S supporters nationwide while also appealing for additional donations.”

The last time I spoke with James Kallstrom we happened to be traveling on the same train to Washington D.C in early 2001. My book had been published to favorable reviews but Kallstrom, who for all the reasons stated above, wasn’t happy with it, approached me with an accusation.

Deadly DepartureYou lied in your book, he told me, disavowing a quote he gave me. While upsetting to be confronted in this way and with something easily disprovable by my notes and an actual recording of the interview, I was not surprised. A few years earlier, while covering the crash for CNN, I’d reported that the hangar in Long Island, the supposedly high-security area where the wreckage was being held, was visited by people who had no legitimate reason to be there. When I called the FBI for comment, Kallstrom denied the story.

So I said to Kallstrom on this, our last meeting, that his charge carried no weight with me. In my journalism career, I told him, I’d been accused of lying twice – both times by him.

Kallstrom had his own reasons for doing the things he did. I have no doubt that in his 78 years of life, he made many more right decisions than wrong ones. We all hope that is our epitaph. But my job then and now is to report what I know to be true.

Kallstrom leaves a wife, Susan Auer and two adult daughters, Erika and Kristel.

Robert Francis, Controversial Face of TWA Investigation Dies in April

Categories: Flying Lessons
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2 responses to “Head of FBI Probe Into TWA 800 Crash Dies, Leaves Mixed Legacy”

  1. Andy Evans says:

    A really thought provoking piece, Christine.
    A timely reminder that when overriding personalities and/or politics and personal agendas get wound into safety investigations, truth has to take a back seat.

  2. Mark Walker says:

    “His commitment to expanding the TWA investigation brought an appropriation of $200 million to the FBI when they were trying to get a focus back on terrorism after the first World Trade Center (attack),” Interesting statement as having attended that trial with Charles Feldman its clear that the first World Trade bombing was in fact instigated by the FBI.

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