TODAY'S PAPER
Good Evening
Good Evening

'A nightmare you don't wake up from': 25 years later, an oral history of TWA Flight 800

Compiled and produced by Seth Mates. Research by Caroline Curtin.

Twenty-five years ago, on a beautiful July evening, the unthinkable happened in the skies over Long Island.

"As a languid summer day gave way to night," read a story in Newsday about the events of Wednesday, July 17, 1996, "witnesses turned their eyes upward – from fishing boats, surfboards bobbing in the waves, even other planes in the sky – to watch a disaster play out in front of them."

Just minutes after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport, TWA Flight 800 – a Boeing 747 bound for Rome with a stopover in Paris and carrying 230 people – exploded over the Atlantic Ocean just south of East Moriches.

On the anniversary of a tragedy that shook Long Island and the nation, Newsday looks back through the voices of those who experienced it; all of the quotes below are from the early days of Newsday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage.

That day

Wednesday, July 17, 1996. Officials announce plans to shut all lanes on the Long Island Expressway by Exit 46 for repairs that coming weekend. President Bill Clinton and his Republican opponent, Bob Dole, are out on the campaign trail. The Mets beat the Phillies in an afternoon game at Shea Stadium.

And at Kennedy Airport, passengers start to arrive for their overnight flight to Paris. Each passenger had their own story.

Richard Hammer of Long Beach: "Everything was perfect. The trip was in the planning stages [for my wife and daughter] for four months. … [My wife] had been terrified of flying her whole life. Not just scared, terrified. We walked over to gate 27 where the plane was and they posted the new departure time, 7 p.m. I gave them a fistful of francs and a fistful of American Express travelers checks. Then Beverly said, ‘You know, I'm really feeling good about this. I'm really going to sit back and relax.' I'll never forget it. Her eyes were just brilliant. She was all pumped up about this. I've never seen her so pumped up. she was really looking forward to this trip. Shortly after 6 p.m., I said, I'll leave you international travelers to bond.' I gave them a kiss and a hug and walked away."

Leonard Romagna, formerly of Port Washington: "I took [my wife of almost 50 years] out to the plane and I gave her fifty bucks. I said, ‘Here, I know how cheap you are; you’re going to get inexpensive meals. Go out and buy yourself a good meal … have a decent glass of wine, enjoy yourself on me, will you please?’ So we toodled off goodbye. I don’t even remember if we kissed goodbye. We just waved, said, ‘So long, have a good trip,’ smiled, laughed and she went off to the plane. I thought nothing about it."

Larry Kamm, whose friend and colleague Jack O’Hara was on the plane with his wife: "He and Janet had planned to take this trip for a while. He was combining it as business and a vacation. I had called to offer some support because I heard about the situation at ABC (O’Hara had recently been fired as an executive producer with ABC Sports and this was to be his last assignment). Jack was upbeat. He said, ‘You know something Larry? Janet and I are going to Paris. Twenty-four hours from now we're going to be sitting on a boulevard drinking a very expensive French wine.' He said we'd talk when they got back."

Running roughly an hour behind schedule after a minor mechanical setback, TWA Flight 800 leaves its gate at 8:02 p.m. and takes off at 8:19.

The jet climbs to approximately 13,800 feet. Aviation officials lose radar contact with the Boeing 747-100 at 8:31 p.m.

Robert Siriani, who was outside his parents' home in Mastic Beach: "I looked at the bay and saw a reflection on the water, then I looked up and I saw a big orange fireball falling into the ocean. I'd say it was one hundred feet wide and a couple of hundred feet long, the whole thing was flames, the flames were so bright I didn't see anything else."

David Mueller, who was surfing off the waters at Smith Point: "I just saw this tiny little ball falling. That fell for a couple of seconds, then all of a sudden it just exploded into a huge fiery ball, and then it hit the ocean."

Lisa Michaelson, mother of passenger Yon Rojany, who was originally supposed to be on a different flight to Rome: "It was strange because, when I saw the break-in on the program with the news, they said it was a flight bound for Paris. I don't know if it was a mother's instinct or what, but I knew he was on that plane."

Emergency crews reached the scene within minutes.

Chris Biswurm, a member of the Coast Guard, recalling what another crew member had yelled while knocking on his barracks door: "We have to go NOW! A 747 is down off of Shinnecock!"

Capt. Chris Baur, a helicopter pilot with the Air National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton, and one of the first people to reach the scene: "I happened to be looking over towards the south and saw this explosion in the air and saw this flame spiraling down . . . with a second explosion trailing behind it. As I got out there, I could still see debris falling from the sky that left a trailing smoke plume . . . the water was on fire."

Suffolk County police diver Vinnie Termine: "We couldn’t get near. We tried. We made one pass close to those flames. They were like thirty feet high, you couldn’t distinguish what was under them or behind them. You couldn’t tell if it was structure or it was just the slick that was burning on the surface."

Ed Probst, a sport fisherman out of Center Moriches, who helped recover bodies from the water: "I was trying not to look at the faces. We were thinking, 'We've got to do it, we've got to do it.' We knew we had to continue. If it was our family, we'd want them out the water."

Fisherman Frank Jackson, who went to the crash site: "The scene was a nightmare."

The next day

According to Newsday reports, the day after the crash "was an eerily peaceful day, hours after the flaming wreckage plunged into the sea. Hazy sunlight illuminated the shiny waters, the stillness punctuated only by the sound of life's remnants bobbing up and down. On what would normally be a perfect day to enjoy the outdoors, the ocean off Moriches Inlet was riddled with debris a smoldering white teddy bear, a charred toothpaste tube, unopened bags of pretzels and scores of airline tray tables, still folded in their locked and upright position."

Manorville resident Rosemarie Coleman, at Rogers Beach in Westhampton Beach the next morning: "It's kind of eerie if you stand at the water, the thought that lives were lost somewhere out there."

Capt. Baur: "Whatever this explosion was, the debris was what you would pick up with a sink strainer. I'm talking about little, twisted, unrecognizable pieces of debris. There was nothing discernible. It was just destroyed."

Chief Petty Officer John Chindblom of the Coast Guard office in Moriches: "Bodies are being recovered. There are no signs of survivors at all."

Joseph Morano, a member of one of the recovery crews: "We found a Tweety bird stuffed animal, and I was thinking who does this belong to? What was he doing? It made you hurt."

The effort to salvage debris and evidence continues underwater.

George Tulloch, president of a Manhattan-based underwater recovery company: "It's a lot more difficult than you think. There is wreckage all over the ocean floor and you're asking men to risk their lives, in relative darkness, to go down and bring everything back. This is not a quickie job that's going to take a week or two."

Kevin Oelhafen, one of the two Navy divers who found the plane's crucial black boxes: "This is a very arduous mission. Walking on the bottom is real hazardous. Some of the pieces of wreckage are pretty big, five to six feet tall. They're sharp. They're all over the place. You're walking with an umbilical trailing behind you. It gets snagged on everything."

The wreckage is systematically logged and reconstructed in a warehouse in Calverton to try and understand what happened.

FBI investigator Ken Maxwell: "We always say it’s the largest jigsaw puzzle in the world."

The families

FBI lead investigator James Kallstrom: "You ever go to a friend’s wake and you figure out what to say to these people? Multiply that by a thousand people that had just suffered a tragedy and figure out what you’re going to say to these people."

A clergyman after helping to anoint the bodies of victims: "We are standing before God now with a very, very different view of what life is about. People, good people...died last night."

Joseph Lynchner, on his daughter Shannon, 10, who was killed with her mother and sister: "Shannon's goal was to become an astronaut. She was born on the day the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed . . . To have her die in this way, in so similar a fashion, it's horrific."

Elizabeth Early, whose sister died on the flight: "It's like a nightmare you don't wake up from."

Ron Paulhamus, a print shop owner in Montoursville, a small Pennsylvania town where 21 of the victims were from: "Everybody knows everybody. There will be very few people not affected by it."

Frank Ortiz, who attended a gathering at Smith Point County Park, and whose niece, Virginia Holst of Manorville, died in the crash along with her husband, Eric: "By touching the water I think we touched her soul."

President Bill Clinton, after meeting with families: "These families have suffered enormous pain – the loss of a parent, a child, a husband, a wife, a brother, a nephew, a niece. They were still in a great deal of pain, and I know that we can all understand not only their pain but the frustration that they feel at the time it is taking to recover their loved ones and to get answers."

The process of recovering the deceased is indeed a slow one, and some families grow restless.

Antonio Licari of Italy, whose nephew, Salvator Mazzola, was on the plane, and whose body was not found in the first week: "We came to take the body and go home, but we see nothing, we never see anything, and we're never going to see anything. At this point, we're going to go crazy … It's the same meeting as the first day. It's the same every day. They tell us the number of people they've found, male or female, and that they're doing as much as they can. It's been Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, we're still in the same place."

Edward Hardy of the Red Cross: "This is a long, drawn-out process. To the families, there appears to be no end in the process. They will take out their anger on whoever seems to be delaying the process of closure."

Joe Ortiz, whose niece was on the plane: "I don't care about the cause. We just want to find the 230 people that died here . . . In the end, that's the only concern."

John Feeney, upon receiving a positive ID for his daughter, a 17-year-old Kellenberg Memorial High school honor student: "You simply cannot say goodbye without a body . . . Now we at least have Deirdre."

Patricia O'Grady, who lost her cousin, Maureen Lockhart, a TWA flight attendant: "When you're inside the hotel you do not have to speak to communicate. You can look at people and know what they're feeling. You can see into people's hearts and you connect with them . . . It's a powerful bond that needs no words, no explanation. It crosses language barriers, crosses cultural barriers. It's as if you're holding hands with a hundred people without touching them."

The investigation

Ira J. Furman, former deputy director of the National Transportation Safety Board: "What do we know? We know that a plane came down miles from Kennedy Airport, that it came down 10 miles offshore and that people heard an explosion."

FBI's Kallstrom: "We know everything there is to know about this aircraft – who boarded it, who put bags on it, who fixed it."

A federal investigator, who declined to be identified, on repairs to the plane’s engine cable and a cockpit indicator light during its three-hour turnaround at Kennedy after a flight from Athens and before leaving for Paris: "Really routine stuff. They weren't problems that would make a plane blow up."

TWA mechanic Anthony Scimeca, whose team serviced the plane before its departure that night: "You can't know how upset I've been. We've all been like family. It's as if I lost a member of my family. Just talking about this now makes me upset all over again."

William O'Driscoll, president and general chairman of District Lodge 142 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers: "When I heard it was Tony's crew in that plane, I knew it had to be a bomb or a missile. Tony is one of the top mechanics in the business."

Kallstrom: "It's not normal" for a jetliner to explode in midair due to any mechanical malfunction.

A Clinton administration official close to the investigation: "You still can't rule out any explanation, but it's pointing more and more in the direction of an explosive device."

Kallstrom: "If it's a rocket we would concentrate on Suffolk County. If it's a bomb, then Kennedy Airport and Athens."

Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA terrorism expert who says he felt it was "95%" certain a bomb downed Flight 800: "I have a gut feeling it's someone on the usual list of suspects. But I don't think anybody knows who did it."

Mark Harrington, vice president and general manager of MSNBC, on what he told his news staff: "We have to remember there is no firm evidence yet. This could be an issue of airline safety and not terrorism."

The security

Amid the investigation into the cause of the explosion, speculation runs rampant – was it a bomb? Terrorism? More than five years before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, security takes center stage.

Transportation Secretary Federico Pena: "As we look to the future, with the new threats, is the current system enough, or do we need to change the operating assumptions we've had for many years?"

Clinton, on new security steps being taken at airports: "We will hand-search more luggage and screen more bags. And we will require preflight inspections for any plane flying to or from the United States – every plane, every cabin, every cargo hold, every time."

Carol O'Neill, waiting to board a flight at MacArthur Airport days after the crash: "This is the first time I ever had to show a photo identification."

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), whose 1995 letter to Clinton sparked creation of the task force that met the day of the crash: "My experience is, the public has a very low threshold [for security measures]. Once the crisis passes, people say, Why'd you make us do that?' That means we should take advantage of the present mood."

Ten days after the crash, a bomb goes off at the Olympics in Atlanta, killing two people and injuring more than 100.

Teresa O'Connor of New Hyde Park, reacting to the news as she attended a funeral for a TWA victim from Long Island: "It's so unsettling for everyone for this to happen. People are starting to lose confidence in humanity. Respect for everything is diminishing, including human life."

Epilogue

Since the summer of 1996:

  • A joint task force determined that there had been no criminality that had caused the explosion, and a four-year NTSB investigation found that the explosion had likely been caused fuel tank issue caused by a wiring problem. As a result of the finding, safeguards have been added to fuel tanks in aircraft ever since.
  • The airport security measures taken in 1996 are permanently ramped up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
  • The reassembled plane – which had been used as teaching tool since the crash – is being archived and the wreckage will be destroyed.
  • Crowds still pay tribute to the victims of Flight 800 every year, including at the TWA Flight 800 International Memorial and Gardens at Smith Point County Park.

Mary Glander of Patchogue, who worked for TWA for 30 years and knew many of the crew members, in 2020: "[The memorial is] just so calm and beautiful. I walk around and read all the names on the wall and then I sit down and cry."

For many, the pain remained ever-present.

Joan Holst, whose son and daughter-in-law died on the plane, in December 1996: "People tell me to get on with my life. That’s something you tell someone with a broken toe, not a broken heart."

Alexander Greene on his wife, Renee, who died on the flight: "We were two. Now I'm one, and one is an odd number."

Bernadette Cioch, director of Suffolk County's Critical Incident Stress Management Team, in July 1997: "Our lives were changed forever that day. There are a lot of people out there who are still hurting . . . The pain really never goes away."

Latest Long Island News