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Flight 800 memorial honors victims and LI heroes

The memorial to victims of TWA Flight 800

The memorial to victims of TWA Flight 800 at Smith Point County Park in Shirley. Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

On Saturday, much of the world will look to Long Island as we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the TWA Flight 800 catastrophe, when 230 people died as the aircraft exploded over the South Shore.

As families and loved ones of the victims share their common bond of love and grief, let's not forget the spirit and values demonstrated by Long Islanders following the tragedy.

Two recent events provide contrasts between then and now — about confidence in our national institutions and regard for empirical science.

James Kallstrom, the man who led the FBI's two-year probe into the disaster, died last week at age 78, and federal authorities recently announced plans to dismantle and destroy the reassembled Boeing 747 airliner, long stored at a hangar in Virginia, declaring its forensic and educational mission is complete.

Within hours of the explosion, dozens of crews representing news agencies from around the world acquired satellite communications gear and raced to the site where the plane's wreckage was burning and to the U.S. Coast Guard station in East Moriches. Kallstrom and other officials frequently provided information to reporters on-site before moving operations to a location more accessible for victims' families and international media, at Smith Point County Park in Shirley.

Recovery teams on boats and in the water moved carefully among the human remains and gathered jagged pieces of aircraft wreckage from the ocean, a harrowing and dangerous project; then scientists and technicians reassembled those shards and fragments in Calverton. It took months to recover and identify the remains of all 230 victims.

The jumbo hulk of the plane was later transported to Virginia where it was studied for clues and stored for nearly two decades. Investigators, including from among Kallstrom's FBI unit, and teams of engineers, chemists and other scientists tracked down leads and determined the explosion was caused by an electrical spark igniting the jet's fuel.

There are parallels to the Flight 800 story that are relevant today: the nascent social media of the era, tabloid television and talk radio presented and discussed alleged eyewitness accounts of the event and engaged in speculation about a sinister or accidental attack.

Kallstrom and investigators addressed and debunked claims that the aircraft was destroyed by a bomb, or downed by a missile launched by terrorists — or by the U.S. military.

Twenty-five years ago, Long Islanders employed our federal institutions, scientific investigative abilities and the generous spirit of community to find truth and to strengthen bonds among neighbors.

Some memories may fade, but a touchstone in Shirley remains as a memorial to the victims, and as a monument to the Long Islanders who stepped forward tirelessly with love and faith to comfort and encourage first responders and recovery workers — and who continue to welcome and embrace mourners from many nations who gather each year at the Flight 800 Memorial, located among the dunes of Smith Point County Park.

This year's Flight 800 observance evinces our demonstrated Long Island spirit of community.

David North is a broadcaster and journalist, and board member of the Press Club of Long Island. He was a reporter for Long Island's WALK 97.5 at the time of the Flight 800 disaster.

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