At TWA Flight 800 memorial, remembering the victims

Karen Bytnar, of St. James, and a former Karen Bytnar, of St. James, and a former TWA crew member stands against the TWA Flight 800 Memorial in Smithpoint Park. (July 17, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

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Families of the 230 people killed when TWA Flight 800 crashed gathered to mark the 17th anniversary Wednesday night amid controversy over a new documentary that raises questions about what downed the jumbo jet.

The ceremony was held at the memorial at Smith Point County Park on the east end of Fire Island, the closest shore point to the crash.

The names of those who perished were read aloud. Relatives, friends and others then laid white carnations on stone benches or tossed them in the surf.

Some viewed the names of loved ones lost, etched into black granite, and felt a measure of solace.

"It certainly does give you a place to meditate, say prayers," said Walter Becker, of St. Petersburg, Fla., who lost his 19-year-old daughter, Michele. She had been headed to a wedding.

Former TWA attorney Margaret Giuglino, who worked on the crash investigation, recalled the grieving father of an 11-year-old boy, an exchange student from France.

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The father wanted to see his son's body, but Giuglino knew it was too damaged to be viewed. So she negotiated a compromise with officials.

"We allowed him to open up the casket," just to grip his son's hand one last time, she said.

Twelve minutes after takeoff from Kennedy Airport, the Paris-bound Boeing 747-100 plummeted into the waters off East Moriches at 8:31 p.m. on July 17, 1996. All aboard died.

Margaret Krick, whose 25-year-old son Oliver was the flight engineer, said her younger son, Chris, now 36, is a commercial pilot. She didn't block his career choice, or his penchant for motorcycle riding near his Arizona flight school.

"Ollie would want his brother to ride in those beautiful wide-open spaces out there. You have to embrace life," Krick said.

Ralph Kevorkian, whose father, Douglas, was Flight 800's pilot, said Wednesday's ceremony allowed him to reconnect with others who share the "essential bond" of losing someone in a jetliner crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board, after a four-year study, concluded that the explosion was caused by a spark that ignited fuel vapors. The agency ruled out a bomb or a missile, a conclusion that's challenged by the documentary. Based on interviews with six former official investigators, "TWA Flight 800" calls for reopening the probe.

The documentary was largely reported by Tom Stalcup, a physicist and longtime head of the Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization.

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Stalcup is convinced that the jet was struck by three missiles. The former investigators, who want the probe reopened, also say the FBI tampered with evidence or withheld it.

Investigators who led the probe have stood by their conclusion that an accidental fuel tank explosion was to blame.

John Seaman, who lost his niece in the crash and leads a group of Flight 800 families, criticized the timing of the documentary -- airing the same time as the memorial service.

"People want to exploit our grief for their gain," said Seaman, of Clifton Park. "We don't want our memorial service to be turned into a commercial for this movie."

The Epix cable TV channel aired the documentary Wednesday night. The film also will be screened Saturday at the Stony Brook Film Festival.

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Long-term funding for the memorial's upkeep, meanwhile, has not been secured, advocates said this week.

Seaman is hopeful Suffolk will play a bigger role.

Developmentally disabled clients of the Moriches-based Independent Group Home Living (IGHL) Program have been helping maintain the memorial, said Frank Lombardi, assistant to the CEO for IGHL and a board member of the families association.

Legis. Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) has been trying to solve the funding problem.

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