Flying Solo

A Houston widower blames negligence, not terrorism, for a deadly plane crash.

Joe Lychner wants justice. It has been nearly a year and a half since the Houston software salesman’s wife, Pam, and their two daughters, Katie and Shannon, were killed along with 227 others in the crash of TWA flight 800 off the coast of New York, but unlike conspiracy theorists, he believes that the cause was simple mechanical failure—and that the airline and the plane’s manufacturer, Seattle-based Boeing, are to blame. “ TWA and Boeing killed my family,” says Lychner, who has filed suit against the two companies and is seeking unspecified damages. “It’s not for the money,” he explains. “My hope is that we will find the people who let the plane fly knowing it could explode and prosecute them for criminally negligent homicide.”

On December 8, in Exhibition Hall A of the Baltimore Convention Center, the National Transportation Safety Board ( NTSB) will hold hearings concerning the cause of the crash and release the evidence it amassed in its seventeen-month, $30 million investigation. Lychner will be there, and so will his New York attorney, Lee Kreindler, who wants to compare the NTSB’s findings with those of his own investigator, Peter Jorgenson. A member of the team that designed the 747, Jorgenson hypothesizes that a faulty pump ignited the center fuel cell, causing an explosion and then a catastrophic structural failure in the plane. He notes that when they were first built, 747’s were meant to be retired after 60,000 flight hours, but this one had logged more than 101,000 hours.

Spokesmen for TWA and Boeing did not return phone calls seeking a comment on Lychner’s suit, but after he filed it, both companies moved to apply the Death on the High Seas Act ( DOHSA). The law was passed in 1920 to guarantee compensation for families of seamen killed in shipping accidents, but it covers only the kin of wage earners, which would make Pam, Katie, and Shannon Lychner—and Joe’s legal action—worthless. Unbowed, Lychner testified this July before the House of Representatives’ Aviation Subcommittee and helped persuade its members to amend DOHSA retroactively so it would not apply to flight 800. The bill now sits in the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, where Slade Gorton of Washington—Boeing’s home state— is a member. “I’m not gonna let him hide,” says Lychner. “We are giving him the opportunity to do the right thing. If he doesn’t, I’m gonna let everyone know.”

Just as his late wife founded the victims-rights group Justice for All after the man who tried to rape her was set to be let out of jail, Lychner hopes some good will come from his ordeal. Since the crash he’s been working to change airline procedures for handling such tragedies. On that fateful night it took him and six friends several hours to break through the busy signals on TWA’s toll-free information line. After leaving two messages, he finally reached a member of TWA’s disaster response team, who, he says, hung up on him when he demanded to be put on the next flight to New York. Lychner recently spent a day telling his tale to managers at Continental Airlines in Houston. “I don’t know if I can keep doing this,” he said. “But they have to understand what’s at stake every time they put someone on a plane.”

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