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17th anniversary of TWA Flight 800 crash

Families of the victims will gather at the

Families of the victims will gather at the Shirley memorial. (2011) Credit: John Dunn

Family and friends of those killed onboard TWA Flight 800 will gather Wednesday night at the memorial in Smith Point County Park on the 17th anniversary of the explosion and crash -- at the same time that a documentary, questioning investigators' findings, will be broadcast.

The Boeing 747-100 -- going from New York to Rome, with a stop in Paris -- plummeted into the waters off East Moriches at 8:31 p.m. on July 17, 1996, shortly after takeoff from Kennedy Airport, killing all 230 passengers and crew. A four-year investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the cause was an accidental fuel tank explosion.

At 8 p.m. the Epix cable TV channel will broadcast "TWA Flight 800," a 90-minute documentary. In it, six former members of the official crash probe rebut the official cause and claim the investigation was systematically undermined.

The NTSB ruled out a bomb or a missile as the cause. At a briefing this month, current and former federal officials who had lead roles in the investigation stood by their conclusion.

John Seaman, longtime leader of the Families of Flight 800 Association, called the timing of the documentary's broadcast insensitive. He has been meeting with Suffolk County officials in recent days to press for a commitment to maintain the TWA Flight 800 memorial.

The black granite and garden memorial, located in Shirley at the closest shore point to the crash, has been maintained by the families and by clients of the Independent Group Home Living Program (IGHL) for the developmentally disabled, said Frank Lombardi, assistant to the CEO of the Moriches-based program and a board member of the families association. Other support has come from Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco.

Seaman is hopeful the county will play a bigger role in caring for the site.

"We expect the county executive will take a strong partnership role to preserve the memorial for this year, next year and for many years to come, both for Families of Flight 800 to remember and grieve, but also the community," said Seaman, of Clifton Park. His niece, Michelle Becker, 19, was killed.

Suffolk County Legis. Robert Colarco (D-Patchogue), whose jurisdiction includes the memorial site, said he has been meeting with IGHL and the families.

The county "needs to find a way to make a long-term commitment so the memorial is properly maintained," Colarco said Tuesday. "It is a jewel."

The documentary also will be screened Saturday at the Stony Brook Film Festival.

"It is a really well-made documentary ... and a well-made film and an important film," said Alan Inkles, the festival's founder and director.

Helen Siebert, 71, of Fort Myers Beach, Fla., lost two daughters, Chrisha, 28, and Brenna, 25, on the flight. She has not seen the documentary but said she "feels at peace" with the NTSB's findings.

"Knowing for sure without a shadow of a doubt what happened, I don't know if that will ever occur," she said.

Nora Ryan, Epix chief of staff, said the intention is to honor the anniversary. "We understand and appreciate the feelings of the families, and while for some this may be difficult, for others it may be helpful," she said.

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