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From the archives: TWA Flight 800, flying with fear

A skycap inspects airline tickets for TWA passengers

A skycap inspects airline tickets for TWA passengers at Kennedy Airport on July 26, 1996. After the crash of Flight 800 on July 17, 1996, security was tightened at metro area airports, and passengers expressed apprehension before flying. Credit: AP / Wally Santana

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

Clutching a suitcase borrowed from her mother in one hand and extra cash accepted from her father in the other, Laura Cancellieri waited at Long Island-MacArthur Airport yesterday to take the second plane trip of her life.

On her way to Washington, D.C., for a weekend vacation, the 21-year-old graduate student from Huntington also carried with her tangled emotions about what the destruction of TWA Flight 800 meant to her safe Long Island world.

"Because it was here, your mind goes crazy," Cancellieri said at the Islip airport. "You think about your family, your friends. You don't think a plane would ever fall in your backyard . . . You don't think these things happen here." 

Nearly 48 hours after the 747 jetliner exploded and crashed in the Atlantic Ocean south of East Moriches, Long Islanders passionately expressed their views about Wednesday's still-mysterious incident. Along with the sadness and anger over the deaths of 230 people, their overwhelming feeling was of their own vulnerability.

"Wouldn't you feel more vulnerable if there was a mugger on your block than in Des Moines, Iowa?" asked Raymond Verini, 77, of Dix Hills, who was picking up his sister at the airport. "If it's close, you feel more vulnerable."

"My son is in Bosnia . . ." said Frank Haden, 56, of Farmingville, who stopped by the local post office. "Now I'm worrying about my family here."

That expression of innocence lost was also heard from members of the Exchange Ambulance Corps of the Islips, who watched federal authorities bag and tag debris at the Coast Guard Station in East Moriches.

To Kerry Flanagan, it was the end of normalcy on Long Island, or "East Cupcake," as one of her teachers used to call it.

"America has always been protected. We have these two oceans on either side of us, and you always feel safe and non-threatened," said ambulance volunteer Flanagan, 30, who stood outside the corps' blue and white ambulance.

If the TWA flight was bombed, like the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City federal building, Flanagan said, "each little thing shakes your security. You are less and less secure."
Jim Passano, the 30-year-old chief of the corps, echoed that worry: "If you can't feel safe in your own country, then where can feel safe?"

The question of terrorism was also on the mind of Linda Duchin, who looked, but said she didn't feel, calm as she strolled out of Lord & Taylor in Manhasset with a jar of moisturizer.
Since the crash, "I feel like every time I turn my head, I have to wonder who is behind me," said Duchin, 56, a former travel agent. "You could be walking along the streets of Long Island next to a terrorist."

Norma Bodnar of Orange, Va., who also was shopping in Manhasset, agreed. "I just feel like they're going to target a lot more places. This is just the beginning," said Bodnar, 71, a former Westbury resident who was visiting her daughter, Barbara.

Many people said they would feel better if the plane had been downed by mechanical failure, but several also said a crash of any kind made them worry about air safety in general.
"If it's an accident, it will ease my mind a little bit, but then why don't the airlines have more checks?," asked Haden. "A lot of these planes are old, and they should be checked more often than they are."

"I've been planning to go to Florida for months," but won't be getting on a plane now, said Genevieve Willock, 29, of East Hampton. "My life is more important than what's out there. I don't think it's worth it."

For others, the crash brought a sense of helplessness.

"I just wish there was something I could do, other than just writing a check and putting it in the mail," said Amy Cott, 34, an administrative assistant at Community Reformed Church in Manhasset. "I wanted to go down to the crash site to help, but I thought I'd just get in the way."

Her voice breaking and her temple resting on her right hand, Cott said, "You hear about death and destruction all the time, but for some reason this one just kicked me right in the gut. Those people didn't have a chance."

Still others were doing their best to avoid new information about the plane after the first day.
At Dino & Co. Hair Salon in Manhasset, customers have talked about little but the crash, but the salon's television set -- tuned to nonstop news reports on Thursday -- was now tuned to VH1. "You have to get away from it for a little while," said owner Dino Rizzuti, 52. "Otherwise, you can't get back to work . . . You have to get on with your life."

Roosevelt resident George Eatman, 51, took a more fatalistic view as he sat on an upside-down milk crate outside the Quick Pick Food Market. "It was a sad thing, but what can you say about tragedy?"

At Citarelli's Market in Eastport, owner Larry Citarelli posted a message on a bulletin board outside the store: "God Bless TWA 800." Citarelli, 56, said the plane's destruction should be a "wake-up call" for America to be more stringent with immigrants and criminals. "Personally, I think this country has got to get its house in order," Citarelli said. ". . . It's time to do something. When you say yes to everybody, it's bad for the world."

But some were not focused on terrorism, politics, or even their next plane trip.
Buttering bagels inside the market, Amber DiGangi, 19, had hardly looked at news coverage because of work. But she had been praying for the victims. "Make sure that they're good now, that they're OK now," DiGangi said she had prayed. "Try to help the families."




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