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TWA Flight 800 wreckage is still studied

Chris Carlisle, site manager of TWA Flight 800

Chris Carlisle, site manager of TWA Flight 800 Memorial at Smith Point County Park in Shirley, washes the monument with the victim's names in preparation of ceremonies marking the 15th anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800 on Sunday. (July 15, 2011) Credit: John Dunn

Fifteen years after the explosion and crash of TWA Flight 800, the meticulously pieced-together remains of its fuselage are a lasting legacy that benefits aviation accident investigators.

Each year, 1,100 to 1,200 student investigators study the wreckage, stored in a custom-built National Transportation Safety Board facility near Washington, to learn about reconstruction techniques and how to use reconstructions both to find the cause of accidents and to prevent future accidents.

"It clearly demonstrates and teaches the processes, procedures and detailed scientific and technical analysis that the safety board uses in accident investigations to determine the probable cause," said Paul Schuda, director of the NTSB Training Center.

The Boeing 747, bound from New York to Rome with a stopover in Paris, exploded and crashed into the Atlantic 12 minutes after takeoff from Kennedy Airport on July 17, 1996. All 230 people on board were killed.

The reconstructed fuselage -- it was called "jetosaurus rex" by some of those who built it -- played a key role in helping investigators determine the cause of the crash: a fuel-tank explosion likely caused by a wiring problem in the center tank. The reconstruction also helped investigators rule out the theory advanced by some that the plane had been brought down by a missile.

Sunday, as they do on each anniversary, family members of those killed will gather in Smith Point County Park in Shirley at the black granite and garden memorial just off the beach. The memorial was built at the closest shore point to the crash site 10 miles south of Moriches Inlet.

They will remember their loved ones and honor the dozens of responders, including emergency services workers, police divers and NTSB investigators, who assisted with the recovery and in the investigation of the crash, said Families of Flight 800 chairman John Seaman, of Clifton Park, near Albany. Seaman's niece, Michele Becker, 19, was among those killed.

"A lot of people went through extraordinary efforts to help us, and it would be a shame if people didn't remember," Seaman said. "Getting that whole airplane back and putting it together . . . That has never been accomplished before in aviation history -- and hasn't been since." The wreckage has been an occasional gathering place for the TWA 800 victims' families. Transportation board officials say it is not open to the public.

The reconstruction was the largest of its kind in any accident investigation. The patched-together fuselage, 96 feet long, was kept for years in a hangar at the old Grumman plant in Calverton. In 2003, it was crated in shipping containers, shrink-wrapped, transported to the NTSB facility in Ashburn, Va., and put back together. More than 95 percent of the wreckage was recovered.

The NTSB also provides a 21/2- hour instructional briefing using the reconstruction at no charge to any federal, state or local agency, as well as any public or private group that deals with transportation safety or security on how the NTSB conducts investigations.

Remembering the dead of Flight 800

Families of the victims of TWA Flight 800 will gather Sunday to commemorate their loved ones on the 15th anniversary of the explosion and crash that claimed 230 lives.

Sunday's ceremony is at 7:30 p.m. at the memorial in Smith Point County Park in Shirley. The names of the dead will be read and one white flower for each will be cast into the ocean.

The work of crash responders also will be recognized.