Wednesday June 4 7:57 AM EDT

NTSB Official: TWA 800-Type Crash Avoidable

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The National Transportation Safety Board's top aviation safety official said the center fuel tank explosion that brought down TWA Flight 800 need not have occurred.

"I think it's very important for the public to understand that this accident, or any accident that is similar, does not have to occur..." NTSB Director of Aviation Safety Bernard Loeb said in an interview to air on ABC television's "Primetime Live" on Wednesday night.

The Paris-bound Boeing 747, operated by Trans World Airlines Inc, exploded shortly after takeoff from New York's Kennedy Airport on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 people aboard.

The NTSB had already made recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration to prevent the accumulation of combustible fuel vapors in aircraft fuel tanks.

These measures include either putting an inert gas in the empty tank or making sure enough cold fuel is in the tank to prevent ignition of any fuel vapors.

In a statement, ABC said Loeb also said that the FAA knew about this kind of situation prior to July 17, 1996, but had taken no action to prevent it.

Loeb agreed that the coming summer could see other planes take off with vapor in their center fuel tanks.

"I personally hope -- I know our board feels the same way -- that the public doesn't stand for that. That the public lets the FAA know that this is unacceptable."

Neither the NTSB nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation has ruled definitively on what downed Flight 800.

However, FBI Director Louis Freeh said last month that a mechanical failure was the likely cause and the NTSB has focused on the center fuel tank explosion without ruling on the source of ignition.

The FAA has called for comment on the NTSB's recommendations.

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