Two Newsday journalists, reporter Steve Wick and photographer J. Conrad Williams, were the first news team to reach the TWA Flight 800 wreckage.
We pulled away from the dock in Hampton Bays after 10 that night and soon were heading out into open water, the shoreline with its sparkle of lights behind us fading into blackness. July 17, 1996, had been one of those summer days when the ocean was magic and you felt lucky to live by the sea.
Ahead of us, the water was mirror-flat, not a ripple on it. The boat captain we hired to take us said it had been like that all day.
Insistent voices chattered on the boat’s radio as we headed southwest toward a spot off Moriches Inlet. What Newsday photographer John Williams and I knew was that a TWA passenger airliner, a 747-100, had exploded and crashed into the sea at 8:31 p.m., 12 minutes after taking off from Kennedy Airport.
There was no small talk on the boat. Ahead of us was an immense tragedy. The loss of so many lives, and anxiety for what lay ahead, was etched on John’s face as he checked and rechecked his camera equipment.
While all we could see was the dark ocean, we listened carefully to the voices on the radio. Fishermen and recreational boaters spoke of retrieving bodies and putting them on their decks to take them ashore. Some of the voices, overwhelmed with the task at hand, pleaded for help.
As we moved southwest, the rich salt air gave way to the nauseating smell of jet fuel burning. Our boat was in the middle of a thick, black cloud of smoke. As the minutes ticked by, lights began to wink on in the far distance from the boats at the crash scene.
Then, before us, rose a wall of fire. The sea was ablaze. As John tinkered with his camera, he said the smoke from the burning fuel was making him sick.
“Hold on to my belt,” he said as he held his camera up to his eye.
He did not want to pitch overboard as he looked through the viewfinder to take a photograph of the fire.
The captain pulled back on the throttle and we moved closer to the boats. All around us, illuminated by the spotlights on the boats, lay so much wreckage. Parts of the fuselage. Seats. Cushions. Luggage. You could see the name tags on some of them as they passed the boat.
More and more parts of the jet. Big pieces, little pieces, chunks of torn insulation. An edge of a wing bobbing like a buoy. More and more luggage. Backpacks. Shoes. A baby bottle.
Midnight arrived, and with it more rescue boats that had headed out from dozens of South Shore marinas. More bodies were laid out on decks. One voice on the radio said he needed a larger net.
“I’m going to need some help with this,” he said.
Our captain respectfully steered his boat through the sadness and horror and wreckage. As the sun peeked above the eastern horizon, the water brightened and now we could see everything.
Soon we were heading back to Hampton Bays.
We didn’t know then how many had been lost on the Paris-bound flight. Or their names. Or how many were couples going on long-anticipated vacations, or school kids going abroad for the first time. Or men and women away from their families as they headed off on business trips.
The names and their stories would come later — 230 in all, lost in the sky over the ocean on a Long Island summer night.