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Archive: TWA Flight 800, In the morgue, somber tasks

Suffolk County Medical Examiner Charles Wetli and Suffolk

Suffolk County Medical Examiner Charles Wetli and Suffolk Health Commissioner Mary Hibberd at the medical examiner's office in Hauppauge on July 29, 1996. Credit: AP / Cliff Schiappa

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 19, 1996

There was a businesslike grimness about the Suffolk Medical Examiner's Office yesterday, the kind that follows refrigerated trucks full of bodies.

With long-tested methods, including a borrowed digitized X-ray machine for quicker dental identifications and a line of pathologists autopsying plane passengers on stainless steel tables, forensic experts began the task of identifying the bodies and mutilated parts from Wednesday's fiery crash of TWA Flight 800.

"We have a large amount of what appears to be virtually heavy blunt force, some drownings and also postmortem burns," Dr. Charles Wetli, Suffolk's medical examiner, said between autopsies. "Once we see the injury pattern, we will have a better idea of the cause of the death. We look for certain patterns on how to develop an answer for what appears to be a large jigsaw puzzle." 

Victims' fingers will be shriveled after hours in ocean water, making it harder to get good fingerprints. Their teeth, the most durable part of the body, may be blackened by fire, requiring dental experts to clean them before comparing them to records. Preliminary results indicate death for some was "close to instantaneous," Wetli said. He said he believed those who drowned were unconscious when they died.

Identifying the human remains of the TWA crash will in several ways be a much easier task than the recent ValuJet crash in Florida waters, forensic experts said. In Florida, the water temperature rose to about 100 degrees, speeding up decomposition, unlike the ocean off Suffolk's South Shore, which has been about 65 degrees. "If you recover most of the body parts, you can identify most of the bodies," Ray Blakemey, director of operations at the Oklahoma State Medical Examiner's Office, said in a telephone interview. The office identified each of the 168 dead victims in the 1995 Oklahoma City explosion.

Moreover, most of the 140 bodies recovered off Long Island by late yesterday afternoon have been largely intact.

Wetli and his team worked into the night yesterday, bringing in the bodies one by one from huge trucks backed up to the loading docks. First, each one is weighed. Then each was wheeled to the photo room, where cameras record the condition of the body. In an intelligence room, literally wallpapered with data and X-ray information, each body is numbered. The forensic experts keep trying to build up an intelligence record so they can make an exact identification. Finally, the body is placed onto a steel table, where an autopsy records in detail the characteristics of the person and the injuries. A full autopsy takes about two hours.
Forensic and criminal investigators have been trying to determine what caused the jet to explode.

"I believe the dead giveth us tales," William Maples, a forensic anthropologist who investigated the ValuJet crash, said from his office at the University of Florida. "If you don't ask, you don't get tales. Comparing the seating plan and what happened to that identified body, you can find out the exact placement of the explosive device or part and really reconstruct the events of those last few minutes."

Basic rules guide forensic experts in the chaos following disaster as their key tools become X-ray machines, fingerprints and comparisons of body part sizes with bodies.

After the Oklahoma City explosion, the Oklahoma state medical examiner set up stations in the morgue in a sort of assembly line compelled by the number of fatalities. Each focused on a different subject. One station collected the clothes, jewelry and personal items found with each body. At another station, specialists fingerprinted the remains, sometimes peeling off the skin to get good prints. Dental experts sat hunched at another station, using toothbrushes to clean dental remains.

But throughout it all, one person stood by each victim through all the stations. "That escort takes it from station to station," Blakemey said. "That way, you don't lose bodies and you don't lose paperwork."

The clues to a person's identity lie not just in the fingers but also in the teeth and tissue. Each set of fillings, gaps and tooth shapes helps experts make identifications. DNA tests are usually a last resort, when only "atomized" remains have been recovered. Those tests sometimes take up to two months.

But sometimes, teeth and DNA tests may be all but useless without data such as dental records for comparison. In the TWA plane, which was headed for Paris, some of the passengers may have been French nationals, making record collection harder.

"You get a bachelor who isn't in close contact with his family, and people just don't know he's getting on the plane to Paris," said forensic anthropologist Thomas Holland of the U.S. Army Central Identification Lab, whose job is to identify the remains of those killed in war or in military accidents. "I would be surprised if everybody is identified because there are going to be some people you don't have records on."

By yesterday afternoon, the Suffolk County pathologists had finished about 20 autopsies but had not made any definite identifications.

"With a bit of luck," Wetli said, "it will all be completed by the end of the weekend."


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