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Archives: TWA Flight 800, boaters brave the dark sea

Crewmen aboard a Coast Guard vessel pick up

Crewmen aboard a Coast Guard vessel pick up debris from the Boeing 747-100 that was TWA Flight 800 about 10 miles off East Moriches on July 18, 1996. Scores of volunteer boaters in small craft mingled with Coast Guard Cutters during the search for survivors. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

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

Following the traditions that bind together those who work the sea, scores of volunteer boaters head out in their crafts yesterday, braving darkness and the flames of burning jet fuel in a futile search for survivors.

The flat, black sea looked like a floating city of lights near the downed plane, as small craft mingled with Coast Guard Cutters during the search, and helicopters churned overhead.
"There are so many bodies. There are so many bodies," one boater was overheard saying on a marine radio frequency. 

Pete Scopinich of Hampton Bays piloted a fishing trawler within 100 yards of the flames, where a wing section floated on the surface.

"Oh my God, I've never seen anything like this in my life," he said. "This is unbelievable."
A rescue helicopter hovered above a partially submerged life raft, searching for signs of life.
"I'm going down lower to see if there is anything under it," the pilot was overheard saying on radio. Other rescuers radioed for extra body bags and plastic gloves.

Lt. Kevin Dunn, the U.S. Coast Guard officer in charge of the scene, said about 40 to 50 vessels were searching for survivors, including pleasure craft who had volunteered to help. "We've got vessels of every type," he said.

Flames were still shooting 10 feet in the air more than four hours after the crash, fed by a fuel slick that stretched more than 50 yards wide and 100 yards long. Fumes from the flames added to a low fog.

The inky sea, lighted to an eerie glow by the burning fuel, was littered with debris from the downed aircraft. In a swath that went for miles, shredded seat cushions and other items bobbed in the waves.

Light from the flames actually helped rescuers in their grim search. Helicopters also dropped flares that illuminated the water surface.

Dunn said officials would not begin collecting wreckage or diving for bodies until today. He said Coast Guard helicopters had dropped data buoys in the water so that a computer search area could be set up based on the tides and currents. Shortly after 2 a.m., Suffolk officials urged the private boats to leave the area, after reports that some were plucking pieces of wreckage - and even body parts - from the crash scene.

Ralph Lettieri, a firefighter from Hagerman, said he responded to a Coast Guard appeal for help, riding in his small boat for more than an hour across the placid bay.

"If anyone survived, it's a miracle," he said. "You couldn't tell it was a plane."

Just after 9 p.m., Bryan Kerns, who lives on Tuthill Point Road across from the Moriches Inlet, sailed out in his 19-foot-boat to what he estimated was about eight miles from the reported crash scene. In the darkness, he said he saw burning debris spread over about 1,000 feet on the water, while scores of other boats, including Coast Guard vessels, headed in the direction of the scene. "The boat traffic was incredible," said Kerns, a 29-year-old car salesman. "Spotlights were everywhere."

But with his small craft, Kerns figured he would interfere more than help. "If we were in a better position to help . . . than we would have done anything we could," he said. "We were hoping that we would be able to help."

The crew of about six people, including neighbors and friends, spent about a half-hour on the water before heading back.

"At this stage of the game, we weren't going to trek eight miles out to sea ," Kerns said. "We didn't feel we could help. There wasn't much more we could do.

"It's a horrible thing."

Deborah Barfield and Mitchell Freedman contributed to this story.

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