This story was originally published in Newsday on March 26, 1997.
Referring to them as the "real heroes" of the TWA Flight 800 recovery effort, FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom yesterday honored nearly 130 divers at a Brentwood ceremony for their work amid an underwater "metal-sharp, eerie graveyard."
Joined by U.S. Navy personnel and officials from Nassau, Suffolk and New York City law enforcement, Kallstrom thanked the divers for their hard work and their perseverance in the months that followed the July 17 crash of the Boeing 747, which killed all 230 people on board.
Divers endured cold, dark waters, working 97 days straight and plunging 120 feet to recover bodies and the twisted wreckage that sprawled across the ocean floor.
"They risked their lives day in and day out in that tangled mass of metal," Kallstrom said, speaking to nearly 300 people, including divers and their families, in a packed auditorium at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood. "In addition to having accomplished all that and then bringing up the body of a child, a teenager, or a backpack or a teddy bear . . . It was a tremendous feat."
So far, continued recovery efforts - which have now shifted to trawling the ocean floor - have yielded thousands of pieces of the plane, but no answers. After the ceremony, Kallstrom repeated that a bomb, missile, or mechanical failure were all still active possibilities - and that he didn't know if an answer would present itself "two days from now, two months from now or two years from now."
In the past few months, ceremonies and memorial services have been held to honor various groups involved in recovery efforts, including Red Cross volunteers, Coast Guard officials and local emergency workers. Yesterday's was the first to exclusively honor divers from local law enforcement agencies. Divers from the New York City, Suffolk, Nassau and State Police Departments, New York City Fire Departments as well as the U.S. Navy and the FBI worked in the recovery effort and attended the morning ceremonies.
"You had a mission, as terrible as it was . . . you never begged off, even though to do so would have been understandable," County Executive Robert Gaffney told the crowd.
For Suffolk Police diver David Goldstein, the moment was bittersweet, he said. "It's nice to be thanked today," said Goldstein, who worked 14-hour days, sometimes seven days a week until the recovery effort ended in November. "It makes me feel good that I was able to help in some way, but we were just doing our jobs."
Irene Mergl came from Manhattan with her two grandchildren to see her son, New York City Police diver Kevin Gallagher, receive a crystal plaque and letter of commendation signed by FBI Director Louis Freeh.
"I'm absolutely proud," said Mergl, who brought Elizabeth, 4, and John, 6, to see their father. "I wouldn't have missed this for the world."
April 2, the FBI plans to honor nearly 250 Navy divers in Norfolk, Va., at a similar ceremony.