The ugly/ludicrous/dismaying story of the 1974 Pan Am crash at Pago Pago, and the non-compensation of its victims, looks true enough; the presentation can be called dramatic--or stagey. Compromisingly stagey. Norris, a former London Times foreign correspondent and a pilot, cited the disaster--97 of the 101 aboard the Boeing 707 perished--as an instance of avoidable-death-by-fire in The Unsafe Sky (1978). His review of the entire, unsettled Pago Pago case is meant, however, to show up all concerned: from the contingency lawyers for the survivors and the victims' families to, most ominously, the point-man for Pan Am's insurer. (The avoidable-death-by-fire charge--against Boeing--is, as it happens, the one that falls by the wayside.) In a suspense-opener, Norris gets hold of a Federal Aviation Administration report impounded by the trial judge: ""an unexploded bomb"" showing Pan Am lax in training and testing its pilots, and (with other suppressed reports) showing the cockpit crew on Flight 806 to be incompetents, particularly unqualified to make the Pago Pago instrument-landing. But, even without this material, the jury returned au unprecedented verdict of ""willful misconduct"" against Pan Am--on the basis of a dangerous, penny-pinching overload of fuel and demonstrated pilot incompetence. I.e., they came ""to the same conclusion."" (So much for the ""bomb."") Another gap exists between Norris' human-interest introduction of the passengers' families--and his disclosure, after much word of their difficulties, that several of the heirs had weak financial claims. A further rub is his distaste for the legal fraternity--including the young government lawyer (""the young lion licked his lips,"" etc.) who chiefly proved Pan Am (not the FAA) derelict. Still and all: from the plane's Auckland boarding to the rainy Pago Pago descent (and the truly grim experience of the family of two brief-survivors) through the long, complex trial, with its parade of conflicting ""experts,"" to the ensuing damage suits--when the judge inexplicably delayed signing the judgments for two years (and incomprehensibly wasn't forced to)--it makes a tight, hard-hitting melodrama. What it doesn't make is a sober exposÃ‰ of the system.