Five years after 248 U.S. soldiers died in a fireball when their chartered jet crashed after takeoff from a Canadian airfield, Congress has decided that so many questions remain about the incident that sworn testimony and public hearings are necessary to get at the truth. Rep. William J. Hughes, D-N.J., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on crime, said Monday: "We will put witnesses under oath, and we will issue subpoenaes if necessary. . . . A lot of questions remain."
Hughes first raised the possibility of hearings into the crash a year ago. For the last 12 months, he said, subcommittee investigators "have been interviewing witnesses and compiling documents." He said the hearings probably would begin the first week in December.
For Dr. J. D. and Zona Phillips of St. Petersburg, who lost a son in the crash, the panel's decision was cause for restrained celebration.
"It's wonderful," said Zona Phillips. "I just hope that it's a thorough hearing, and not some dog-and-pony show. We've waited so long, I just hope it's worthwhile. I'll be there to watch _ right in the front row with my bag lunch."
Hughes called the hearings "important and sensitive," not only because of lingering questions about the crash, but because the initial investigation was done by the Canadian government. "We want to be on solid ground here," he said. "This involves another sovereign nation. It was their investigation to begin with."
On Dec. 12, 1985, an Arrow Air DC-8 carrying 248 soldiers of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division and eight crew members lumbered into the air at Gander, Newfoundland. Moments later, no more than a few hundred feet off the ground, the aircraft suddenly lost altitude and crashed into trees. There were no survivors. The soldiers were headed home for Christmas from a peacekeeping mission in the Middle East.
The Canadian government's investigation took three years and finally identified only a "probable" cause of the crash _ suspected icing on the wings of the aircraft. That finding was immediately challenged by four of the nine members of the investigating body, the Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB).
The four-member minority argued that there was no evidence to support the icing theory, and that the aircraft was forced down by an on-board explosion, probably the work of terrorists.
Most frustrating to the families of the victims has been their inability to learn how thoroughly the possibility of terrorism was ever investigated by either the Canadian or U.S. government.
Both governments began discounting the possibility of terrorism the day of the crash, when they could not have made such a judgment with certainty. Terrorism was discounted despite a claim of responsibility by a terrorist group, despite Arrow Air links to the Iran-Contra affair, and despite the obvious attraction of U.S. troops as a target.
Hughes said the subcommittee met Saturday and decided hearings were necessary. No vote was necessary, he said. "There was a consensus _ Republicans and Democrats. Now we will attempt to complete the investigation."
Hughes said a list of witnesses is being prepared, but he would not identify anyone on it. The hearings will be open to the public he said, "but we may take some testimony from the CIA in closed session."