On the evening of July 17,1996, 230 people (originally reported as 229) perished as a TWA jet bound for Paris exploded shortly after taking off from Kennedy Airport, raining debris over the Atlantic Ocean south of Moriches Inlet on Long Island. In 1997, Newsday won a Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting on the crash, and rescue and salvage efforts.
This story was published in Newsday on July 18, 1996
A TWA jetliner bound for Paris with 229 people aboard exploded in midair last night just after taking off from Kennedy Airport and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean south of Moriches Inlet, and the Coast Guard said no survivors had been found.
Trans World Airlines Flight 800 had climbed to approximately 13,800 feet when federal aviation officials lost radar contact with the Boeing 747-100 about 8:45 p.m., just as witnesses on the South Shore reported seeing a bright fireball light up the darkening sky.
"I looked at the bay and saw a reflection on the water, then I looked up and I saw a big orange fire ball falling into the ocean," said Robert Siriani, who was outside his parents' home in Mastic Beach. "I'd say it was one hundred feet wide and a couple of hundred feet long, the whole thing was flames, the flames were so bright I didn't see anything else."
The flaming wreckage then plummeted into the dark waters about 9 1/2 miles south of the Suffolk shore, triggering a massive search over five square miles of debris in the open ocean.
"Bodies are being recovered. There are no signs of survivors at all," said Chief Petty Officer John Chindblom of the Coast Guard office in Moriches. Professional and volunteer rescuers found mostly body parts strewed among the torn seat cushions and mangled metal.
At the Coast Guard base in East Moriches, rescue workers -- armed with latex gloves and body bags -- began bringing in the bodies of the dead. A police official said that a boat with about 20 bodies sat outside the inlet, which was too narrow for it to enter. Workers transferred the bodies - many of which were burned and not whole - into smaller boats, which brought the dead to the shore.
At Kennedy Airport, frantic family members were scrambling for information and searching for solace. Jose Fermin of Brooklyn was running around, trying to find out if there was any chance his brother, Alberto, might be alive." My mother wanted to come with me," he said. "She's crying and crying."
Alberto Fermin of Manhattan had been working two jobs, saving money for his long-dreamed-of vacation to France as a 28th birthday present to himself." I didn't see him very often because he was working almost seven days a week," said his sister, Maria, while waiting for news at her mother's Brooklyn home. "He had been saving money for this vacation."
The cause of the crash was still not known last night, and officials cautioned against jumping to conclusions. Speculation focused on the possibility of a terrorist attack two days before the opening of the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
A top Clinton administration official said late last night that no warnings were received from any group, and there is no evidence at this point that the attack was from a terrorist bomb. But James Kallstrom of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's New York office announced at 1:25 a.m. that the bureau is taking over the investigation under the aegis of its joint terrorism task force with the New York Police Department.
Sources familiar with the investigation said agents are poring over the passenger manifest to see if there were any suspicious people or potential terrorist targets on the plane, and questioning pilots who were flying nearby at the time. In addition, agents were contacting informants -- "everybody we know" -- around the world to see if they have any information on threats against TWA or U.S. citizens.
In addition, U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and FAA Administrator David Hinson are expected to arrive at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip this morning at 7 to help with the investigation. And the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which has expertise in explosives, was sending agents to help in the investigation, said John Pitta, the head of the ATF Long Island office.
Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration said the plane had arrived in New York from Athens as Flight 881 about three hours before it left for Paris. The plane was a 747-100, which has been flying since the 1970s and is the oldest series of the model flying, according to officials.
TWA said the plane was bound for Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris with 212 passengers, 14 flight attendants and three pilots. The passengers included some who had been scheduled to leave for Rome on an earlier flight that had been canceled.
Avrohom Hakeller of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, came to Kennedy Airport because his friend, Joseph Cohen, was on the flight.
"I was driving in the car and then over the radio I heard the news," Hakeller said. "My reaction when they said the flight number was that I was just shocked."
Cohen, 29, of Flatbush, was a science student who was traveling to Paris on vacation until September, Hakeller said. Kennedy officials brought the families of relatives on a bus into the Ambassador Club in Terminal 5 to talk to TWA officials and chaplains.
James Devine, the Kennedy airport chaplain, said the airline was putting the families at a hotel overnight but was not able to tell them whether their friends and relatives were on board. "They haven't told them anything as yet," he said shortly after midnight.
Rabbi Alvin Poplack, the Jewish chaplain at the airport, said, "Some were in really bad shape, but others were hopeful. You can imagine what kind of questions they're asking."
Robert Wingate, spokesman for the American Red Cross, said the agency has mental health counselors coming in from around the country. Some were already talking to the 40 to 50 family members at the terminal last night and early this morning.
Information available to families and friends in France, where the flight was due to arrive at 8:15 a.m. local time, was sketchy. But the airline later set up an information center at the French airport, north of Paris.
The extensive search began immediately after the first reports of the explosion. State Air National Guard aircraft on maneuvers off Moriches Inlet spotted the explosion, and the Coast Guard immediately launched a search that grew to 40 to 50 boats, including some pleasure craft, as well as six helicopters.
Other agencies also responded, including a New York City Police Department helicopter and the Air National Guard. About six Suffolk County Police boats were also searching the area. Coast Guard Lt. John Heller just after midnight said that four other large cutters that had been on fisheries patrol off New England were en route along with additional small patrol boats from the Long Island stations.
"We've recovered bodies and debris but not survivors," Heller said. He said crews of the helicopters were using night-vision goggles to help spot bodies or debris. "The winds and visibility are good for a search," Heller said.
In East Moriches, the hundreds of tense rescuers began turning their attention to finding enough refrigerated trucks to hold the mounting number of corpses.
The initial morgue was set up in East Moriches but was scheduled to be moved to Hangar B at the Air National Guard base in Westhampton. Coast Guard officials said that any survivor in the water could last more than 12 hours before hypothermia would set in.
"Whatever this explosion was, the debris was what you would pick up with a sink strainer," said Capt. Chris Baur, a helicopter pilot with the Air National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton who was on a training mission, saw the explosion directly in front of him and was the first rescue person to arrive.
Heller said a C-130 patrol plane would join the search at first light. The Coast Guard had set up security zones to keep unofficial aircraft and vessels away from the search area.
Suffolk officials sent deputy sheriffs, town and village police and military personnel in 30 to 40 four-wheel-drive vehicles intended to patrol the beach near the crash site today to discourage sightseers and to watch for bodies. Suffolk also sent flood maps to the command center so workers can figure where the tides are most likely to wash bodies up.
"Everything is part of a potential crime scene," said Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney. "I'd hate to think that anyone might pick up a piece of evidence."
National, state and local officials responded with reassurances of an ongoing search. "The president was informed about the reports we were getting shortly before 10 p.m.," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said. "He is deeply concerned."
State officials said the State Police and the state Emergency Management Office had also been activated to respond to the crash and Gov. George Pataki, who was in New York City yesterday, was staying in touch with emergency officials and would be going to the scene today.
New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said, "The mood at the rescue site is very serious and very somber. They have recovered bodies and they are bringing them back to shore."
The explosion startled many onlookers, who were unsure what to make of the small flash of light, followed by a large explosion and then a trail of flame plunging to the sea. But a former National Transportation Safety Board official said the sequence may not be meaningful.
The official, Ira Furman, said the fireball cited by witnesses could just be an engine flameout that followed another problem -- "a symptom, not a cause," he said. Such an explosion could also have ignited the aircraft's fuel but would still give no clue to the initial problem with the airplane.
Of a bomb or midair collision, he said, "I don't believe either is the first thing to come to mind."
ABOUT THE 747-100
Manufacturer: Boeing Co.
Wing span: 195 feet 8 inches
Length: 231 feet 10 inches
Maximum seating: 490
Cruising speed: 589 mph
BYLINES: This story was reported by Deborah Barfield, Bill Bleyer, Rick Brand, Tom Demoretcky, Emi Endo, Martin Evans, Mitchell Freedman, Isaac Guzman, Robert E. Kessler, Jessica Kowal, Bill Mason, Molly McCarthy, Nora McCarthy, Phil Mintz, Samson Mulugeta, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, Joe Queen, Jordan Rau, Mike Santangelo, Lauren Terrazzano, Robin Topping, Steve Wick and Ellen Yan, and written by Liam Pleven.