Often the passage of time heals old wounds. But the magnitude of the disaster 17 years ago Wednesday night was so great — with the loss of 230 men, women and children — that the pain remains deep.
The hurt is magnified by the controversy that rekindles the horrors of the night TWA 800 exploded in the skies over Long Island and plunged into the Atlantic. A four-year investigation determined the crash was the result of an accident, but a new documentary claims to have uncovered new evidence that the plane was brought down by a missile.
The plane was 12 minutes out of Kennedy Airport when a massive explosion ripped through the Paris-bound jumbo jet, separating the front of the fuselage from the rest of the aircraft.
Inertia carried the plane upward another 3,000 feet before a second explosion rocked the doomed plane, sending it into a death plunge.
I remember the first flash coming into our newsroom that a plane was down in the Atlantic, a passenger jet with a lot of people on board.
It was 9:30 pm as we scrambled to get information and get on the air as quickly as possible with details. There was little to report except that a plane was down and people were witnessing fire on the water.
Some witnesses in the Hamptons claimed to have seen the plane blow up. They talked about witnessing something streaking toward the plane, perhaps a missile.
Initially, there was the thought that it may have been an act of terror, but that theory dissipated as hard evidence was recovered.
First, there was the awesome task of recovering the bodies from the sea and placing them in a makeshift morgue at the East Moriches Coast Guard Station. It was a heart-wrenching task for the officials and volunteers in boats. With grappling hooks they pulled in mangled bodies, teddy bears, shoes, and other personal belongings.
Within hours we reporters were staked out at the Ramada Hotel at Kennedy Airport, waiting for family members of those who died. It was painful for me to poke a microphone in front of the face of someone who had just lost a mother, a father, a child.
One woman cried that other people were looking at her because she was now part of the news. The pain on their faces was excruciating to see.
When night turned to day and the reality of it all had sunk in, a few families emerged to speak to reporters. One man stood out above the rest. Joe Lychner from Austin, Texas. His loss was insurmountable. His wife and two daughters were on their way for a joyous holiday in Paris. He was so stoic. He fought back the tears to talk about the beauty of the souls who were no more.
Throughout the summer, the Coast Guard and recovery vessels became a permanent fixture on the horizon of the Hamptons, the playground of the rich and famous. A massive investigation was launched to determine the cause of the crash.
Assistant FBI Director James Kallstrom was in charge of the criminal investigation. He worked closely with the National Transportation Safety Board. Miraculously, 97% of the aircraft was recovered from its watery grave and reassembled in a hangar in Calverton, Long Island.
Metallurgists were brought in from all over the world to study the plane in an effort to determine what caused the explosion. It wasn’t long before they zeroed in on the empty central fuel tank. The plane’s wings had an adequate fuel supply for the flight to Paris.
There was only a residue of fuel in the center tank that hadn’t been absorbed by a scavenger pump. TWA 800 became its own bomb as it sat on the tarmac in sweltering heat. Air conditioning packs under the wing created an abundance of heat, turning droplets of fuel into volatile vapors. After a four year investigation, the NTSB concluded that a spark, most probably from the scavenger pump, ignited the vapors, causing the catastrophic explosion. It amassed 17,000 pages of documents to support its findings.
It was a little over a year after the crash that the FBI ruled that there was no criminal act that destroyed the plane. But that finding has never satisfied the conspiracy theorists who claim TWA 800 was destroyed by a missile. Over 250 people said they saw something streaking toward the plane before the explosion. To date, no substantive evidence has been produced to support their belief.
To coincide with the 17th anniversary of the crash, a new documentary, “TWA Flight 800” has been released. It features six individuals who were part of the original investigation, including retired members of the NTSB, who insist the government was involved in a coverup and is shielding from the public the fact that a missile hit the plane. They have petitioned the NTSB to reopen its investigation. The Board recently held a press briefing to defend its accident conclusion, but is still reviewing the petition.
There are two criteria to reopen. One, to prove the original findings were erroneous, and two to produce evidence that was not available at the time of the original investigation.
The controversy and debate linger almost two decades after one of the nation’s worst aviation disasters. On Wednesday, many families will return to the beach near the crash site to place flowers, offer prayers and rekindle the memories of those they lost on that fateful night in July 17, years ago.