TWA Flight 800 had climbed to nearly 14,000 feet when federal aviation officials lost radar contact with the Boeing 747-100 around 8:30 p.m. on July 17, 1996.
Moments later, witnesses on Long Island's South Shore reported seeing a bright fireball lighting up the darkening sky.
Just 12 minutes after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport, the doomed airliner, on a scheduled flight to Rome — with a stopover in Paris — exploded and plunged to the sea south of East Moriches.
All 230 passengers and airline crew on board were killed — the third-deadliest aviation accident in U.S. history.
For the past 23 years, family and friends of those aboard have trekked to Smith Point County Park in Shirley on the east end of Fire Island to remember those lost at the two-acre TWA Flight 800 International Memorial. Names of the victims are read while white carnations are thrown into the ocean.
The ceremony this year, however, originally scheduled for Friday, was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said.
The granite memorial was built at the closest shore point to the crash site, 10 miles south of Moriches Inlet.
While the ceremony was canceled, Nancy Timerell said she will still make her annual three-hour trip to the memorial from her home in Berlin, Connecticut, on Friday to remember her younger brother, Andy, who was among the victims.
"It's not only a place of remembrance but a place of reflection and renewal," Timerell said. "My brother had a lot of energy and loved doing many things and could do them well. He wasn't afraid of trying new things and I reflect on that and come away with an energy from that."
Timerell said the memorial helps her "find a closeness to my brother. It's a peaceful place to be."
Mary Glander of Patchogue, who worked for TWA for 30 years and knew many of the crew members, said she too will visit the memorial Friday to pay her respects.
"It's just so calm and beautiful," Glander said of the memorial. "I walk around and read all the names on the wall and then I sit down and cry."
A four-year investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Flight 800 was brought down by a fuel tank explosion probably caused by a wiring problem in the center tank.
Investigators ruled out the theory proffered by many over the years that the plane was brought down by a missile.