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In the Blink of an Eye

In the Blink of an Eye

by Pat Milton


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Like the sinking of the Titanic, the crash of TWA Flight 800 just off Long Island, New York, in the early evening of July 17, 1996, captured the world's imagination. Associated Press reporter Pat Milton has covered the story from day one and was granted unprecedented access to the FBI investigation—the largest and most complex in the agency's history.

Initially suspecting that a crime had been committed, James Kallstrom, the head of the FBI's New York office, led the two-year investigation from the start. In the Blink of an Eye offers a rare look at the efforts of several government agencies—which often had different missions—to find the truth about the most mysterious and disturbing disaster in aviation history.
Commercial jets don't just fall out of the sky. So what happened? Was TWA's Flight 800 the first plane to be downed by enemy action within the United States? On the night of the crash, President Clinton told his national security advisors to ready a plan to retaliate if the destruction of Flight 800 proved to be a state-sponsored terrorist attack. If a bomb or missile had caused the disaster, Kallstrom was determined to find the perpetrators before they struck again. If it wasn't either of these, he was no less determined to preclude the sort of conspiracy theorizing that followed the Warren Commission report on the assassination of JFK.
As Kallstrom and his agents tried to piece together the sequence of events that preceded the explosion of Flight 800's center fuel tank, the victims' families also had to come to terms with the tragedy. Their anguish was as much on Kallstrom's mind as the details of the mystery itself. In this vivid account, Pat Milton takes us inside the homes and lives of the victims' families as well as inside the investigation, and as close to the real cause of the crash as we'll ever come.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812991741
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/18/1999
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Pat Milton is a correspondent at the Associated Press and lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt


The Beepers

At 8:45 p.m. on July 17, 1996, the last toasts of a very private dinner were raised within a mahogany-paneled private dining room of the Friars Club on East Fifty-fifth Street in Manhattan. The guest of honor was a short, compactly built former Marine named Ray Kelly: ex-police commissioner of New York City, newly named undersecretary of the U.S. Treasury in charge of U.S. Customs, the Secret Service, ATF, and other law enforcement branches. The dinner was an intimate one, as befitted a vestpocket-size club that occupied a single brownstone. About thirty guests sat on either side of Kelly at a horseshoe-shaped banquet table. Most were men: top brass in the New York police department, the FBI, the CIA, and the Secret Service. But among them were a few women judges and prosecutors. The men kept their jackets on and their ties pulled tight, the women remained in their business suits, but a sense of fun, even mischief, pervaded the room. The Friars Club was one place where a public official could have a glass of port with dessert, light up a cigar, and tell an off-color story without having to read about it the next morning in the Daily News.

As the guests were leaving—law enforcement dinners tended to start and end early, even at the Friars—the gently insistent sound of beepers began chirping from every direction. The guests exited, perhaps a bit more quickly than usual, to their waiting cars to return the calls, not yet aware that they were all about to get the same message.

One of the biggest men in the group—six feet tall, solidly built—managed to look rumpled in his newly pressed suit as he trotted toward his car. With the easy warmth by which his colleagues had come to know him, James Keith Kallstrom mumbled a few quick good-byes, slid behind the wheel of his navy blue Crown Victoria, and called the familiar number that had lit up his beeper: the FBI duty agent in downtown Manhattan. As he dialed, he unbuttoned his collar and yanked his tie loose. Turning north on Madison Avenue, he glanced at his watch. The time was 8:55 p.m.

Seconds later, Kallstrom, the FBI's assistant director in charge—the highest-ranking agent in the field—was racing toward the southbound FDR Drive, his siren blaring, his red dashboard light whirling, his headlights flashing. "The FAA's telling us there was no unusual communication from the crew, nothing. No distress calls." Traffic was thin at this hour, and Kallstrom was able to weave in and around the scattered taxis and Charge-and-Ride limousines. In the FBI's New York office, his fast driving habits were notorious. Everyone conceded he was good at the wheel; everyone knew he'd scored high in the FBI's tactical driving courses, and that he was a race-car and motorcycle enthusiast. But the New York agents also did anything they could to avoid riding with him. The work was dangerous enough as it was.

No distress calls? Kallstrom turned the air-conditioning up. With the back of his hand, he brushed the sweat from his brow and ran his fingers through his thick black hair. Commercial jets don't just fall out of the sky by accident. Kallstrom thought there was a good chance it was a bomb. Ever since the World Trade Center bombing three years before, he'd dreaded the next attack. You could beef up security, wiretap even more suspected terrorists, but Kallstrom knew the real lesson of the World Trade Center: You couldn't cover every possibility. You never knew what was going to happen next. One thing was sure: If a 747 and its passengers had just been downed by sabotage, the world had changed. No plane had ever been downed by terrorists in the United States before.
Hurtling down the FDR Drive, Kallstrom punched an unlisted Virginia home number into the secure phone set on the floor beside his seat. "Louie, we have a 747 down in the water just off the south shore of Long Island," he said tersely in his lingering Boston accent.
"Any survivors, Jimmy?" Louis Freeh, the FBI's director, was more than a colleague on a first-name basis with his New York bureau chief. Years ago, Freeh had worked for Kallstrom as a field agent. When he'd left the FBI to become a federal prosecutor, he and Kallstrom continued to work together to convict Mafia bosses.
"I've got agents headed over to the Coast Guard station in East Moriches. They're sending boats out from there. So far we just don't know."
"Anything you need, you got it, you know that, right?"

Within minutes, the news had been passed up the line: from Freeh to Attorney General Janet Reno, from Reno to White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, from Panetta to President Clinton. Kallstrom's next call was to his number-two man, Tom Pickard, whom he instructed to call John O'Neill, head of the FBI's counterterrorism unit in Washington. O'Neill then called the president's special assistant on terrorism, Richard Clarke. And that was how it worked: From Kallstrom's car phone, the White House was now alerted and on the case.

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