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 20, 1996
High winds and eight-foot seas shrouded the telltale remnants of TWA Flight 800 from investigators yesterday, as frustrated federal officials scoured fuzzy radar images for evidence of a missile attack and issued an unusual appeal for eyewitness accounts of the final, fiery seconds of the ill-fated flight.
On a day in which victims' families continued to pour into New York in hopes of recovering remains of the 230 victims, bad weather stalled the search for bodies and evidence at the crash site, 10 miles off the coast of East Moriches. Six- to eight-foot ocean swells kept nearly 40 scuba divers on several vessels from descending 120 feet to search for the jet's two "black boxes" and what sonar indicated could be a major piece of fuselage, which is still leaking fuel.
"We have the equipment here. We have a plan and the weather is not cooperating. We hope that the weather gets better tomorrow," said Robert Francis, who heads the National Transportation Safety Board team investigating the disaster.
Investigators said that the painstaking investigation, after two full days of looking everywhere from New York to Athens, Greece, had yielded only vague clues.
"We have a lot of things that look like accidents, a lot of things that look like terrorism," said James Kallstrom, head of the FBI's New York office. But he said that while there was not a "critical mass" of evidence to indicate a cause, "it's not normal" for a jetliner to explode in midair due to any mechanical malfunction.
Federal sources said the lack of other explanations points to sabotage. "You still can't rule out any explanation, but it's pointing more and more in the direction of an explosive device," said a Clinton administration official close to the investigation.
Just minutes after it departed Kennedy Airport on Wednesday night, TWA Flight 800, bound for Paris, exploded into a fireball and fell into the ocean in a shower of burning debris. There were no survivors.
Based on an analysis of radar tapes, the Federal Aviation Administration was able to discount the possibility that a blip that seemed to appear on radar just before the plane exploded could have been FAA may not be sensitive enough to pick up a missile fired from the ground, which left open the possibility that a terrorist either on shore or on the water could have fired a surface-to-air missile at the plane.
FBI agents have been walking door-to-door in East Moriches seeking witnesses, one of whom reported seeing an object consistent with a "launchpad projectile" moving upward in the direction of the TWA jet, according to one source close to the investigation.
The FBI also issued a public appeal for eyewitness information through a toll-free number. Kallstrom invited calls from anyone in Suffolk who witnessed "events in the sky, events of things falling out of the sky, anything they think could be worthy." He said the agency was prepared to sort through thousands of calls.
Kallstrom said the FBI had received thousands of calls to the hotline as of last night, and that the bureau was looking for information not only about what people saw in the sky, but also what they saw on the ground.
"Did they walk down the road and see something that doesn't belong?" Kallstrom said.
Flight 800 was at 13,700 feet and climbing when it exploded, which would have put it near the range of a number of portable missiles available on the international arms market, including a Russian-made missile called the SA18 or "Igla," which has a range of 15,000 feet, and the Chinese HN-5 surface-to-air missile, with a range of 13,200 feet. And a weapons specialist familiar with the missiles said the actual range is as much as 25 percent farther.
But many investigators have serious doubts about the likelihood of that sabotage scenario, according to sources familiar with the probe. A shoulder-fired missile that could be launched without being observed would not have the explosive power to shoot down a Boeing 747 without an incredibly lucky shot, such as a direct hit on a fuel tank, they said.
Autopsies of victims also provided no conclusive information yesterday. No shrapnel or other evidence pointing to a bombing was found during autopsies of the first 20 recovered bodies, said Charles Wetli, Suffolk's chief medical examiner. He said that as many as 50 of the 100 bodies recovered so far would be autopsied by last night. He said an earlier total of 140 had been a typographical error.
By early evening, Wetli said that five of the bodies had been positively identified, and many others were tentatively identified yesterday. He identified only one — Courtney Johns, 18, of Clarksville, Mich., who was on her way to be an exchange student in France, was identified through fingerprints. Wetli said he would not identify others until their families were notified.
Francis said that less than 1 percent of the Boeing 747 has been recovered and that so far none of the parts has yielded clues to what caused the plane to explode. The parts are being scanned for evidence of metals and chemical residue linked to explosives.
Investigators are also interested in finding parts such as the cargo hold, because if bomb fragments are found there, it would indicate that the explosive came aboard with baggage, not carried on by a passenger. Agents were also interviewing Kennedy baggage handlers and exploring if a device could have been brought on board the plane during a three-hourlayover between its arrival from Athens and departure for Paris.
The pieces already found were brought to the 300,000-square-foot Hangar 6 of the former Grumman plant in Calverton where the plane will be pieced together. Throughout the day, trucks arrived carrying pieces of the plane up to 15 to 20 feet long, including parts of at least one wing.
The search of the widely scattered, submerged wreckage might be stalled again today because of bad weather, according to the National Weather Service. Six-foot waves are expected, the weather service said.
Investigators are particularly anxious to recover the two flight other is a voice recorder in the cockpit. The cockpit recorder might show whether the crew was aware of a problem, and could reveal the sound of the explosion.
In order to find the black box, officials deployed a New York City police boat equipped with a device called a "pinger," a six-foot-long cylinder attached to a rod of almost equal length that picks up signals emitted by the black boxes. The pinger is dragged behind a boat by a person standing on the stern who dangles it into the water. But waves of six to eight feet made that tactic impractical.
Another police boat, meanwhile, used sonar equipment that scans the ocean floor. The sonar was able to pinpoint what appeared to be at least one large segment of the jet lying about 120 feet beneath the surface, but again the rough sea prevented divers from trying to retrieve it.
"They did find a spike on the sonar close to the scene but it was so rough out there the people on the boat were getting sick," Francis said. "The divers did not go into the water because it was so rough."
Family members gathering in New York yesterday were told by NTSB and TWA officials that it was possible some of the 130 missing victims would never be found. Some of the victims are believed to be trapped in pieces of the fuselage on the ocean floor, but others may have been scattered over a wide area as the jet disintegrated.
"To be honest, it is likely that not all the victims will be recovered, but we'll continue to search for as long as it takes," Peter Goelz, the NTSB's director of government affairs, told the families at asked families to provide identifying physical characteristics such as whether a victim had scars, tattoos or was circumcised.
Without more evidence recovered from the site to analyze, NTSB investigators worked on drafting plausible scenarios under which a mechanical problem could have caused the fiery explosion described by witnesses. Aeronautical experts, meanwhile, said that it was almost impossible to envision a mechanical failure that could have caused a sudden, catastrophic explosion of the Boeing 747.
"I can't think of any mechanical system on that airplane that would blow it up that fast," said Jerry Grey of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "I can't think of anything but a bomb."
Sources familiar with the probe said investigators had confirmed there was no hint of a problem in radio transmissions between the pilots and air traffic controllers in Nashua, N.H.
Flight 800 was handed over to Nashua from the TRACON center in Westbury shortly before the crash. In the only conversation that followed, Nashua gave the plane clearance to climb from 13,000 to 15,000 feet and the pilots acknowledged the message, the sources said. Moments later, the plane disappeared from the radar screen.
Federal officials continued to downplay the significance of a threat that was faxed to a Beirut newspaper hours before the explosion, though the message warned of an attack against American interests in the "morning." Morning in Lebanon occurs at roughly the same time as evening in New York.
The FBI was also looking for clues in Athens, sources said. Athens has been connected to two previous terrorist attacks on the airline. In 1974, a TWA 707 was blown up over the Ionian Sea near Athens. And in 1986, a bomb blew a hole in the side of a TWA 727, as it was landing in Athens.
As the investigation continued, the hotel where the safety board is based during its probe was evacuated for two hours yesterday because of a telephoned bomb threat.
Suffolk police officials said several hundred guests were evacuated from the Smithtown Sheraton in Hauppauge shortly after 2 p.m. while emergency services personnel and police dogs searched the building and found it safe. The threat, according to police, came in on the NTSB temporary switchboard set up at the hotel.
BYLINE: This story was reported by Sylvia Adcock, Michael Arena, Al Baker, Deborah Barfield, Mohamed Bazzi, Bill Bleyer, Pete Bowles, Mae Cheng, Scott Fallon, Ford Fessenden, Mitchell Freedman, Josh Friedman, Katti Gray, Joe Haberstroh, Beth Holland, Glenn Kessler, Robert E. Kessler, Molly McCarthy, Ching-Ching Ni, Shirley E. Perlman, Monty Phan, Liam Pleven, Robert Polner, Jaymes Powell, Joseph W. Queen, Margaret Ramirez, Jordan Rau, Graham Rayman, Knut Royce, Sidney C. Schaer, Gaylord Shaw, Patrick J. Sloyan, James Toedtman, Beth Whitehouse, Liz Willen and Harry Yoon. It was written by William B. Falk.