NEW YORK — Flames racing across the waters off Long Island ignited the reality that a modern jumbo jet with 230 people aboard — TWA Flight 800 — had just blown up 13 minutes after taking off for Paris.
The tragedy prompted one of the largest and most expensive aviation investigations in history. Over 95% of the wreckage was recovered and examined by worldwide experts in an effort to determine the cause of such a calamity. While the prevailing thought of investigators thought it was an accident, hundreds of others saw it as something much more sinister.
Some theorists suggested a missile test being fired by the USS Normandy may have accidentally hit the plane. That, as well as the possibility of terrorism, were both discounted.
“We found nothing consistent with a bomb or missile or explosive device,” said FBI Investigator Jim Kallstrom at the time.
After scrutinizing more than a million pieces of wreckage, the focus turned to an accident caused by an explosion in a nearly empty center fuel tank.
It’s believed that Flight 800 became it’s own bomb as it sat on a broiling hot tarmac. With air conditioning units under the nearly empty tank, the heat turned a puddle of kerosene into volatile vapors.
The law firm representing over 100 families of victims determined in its own investigation that aging planes like TWA 800 had wiring problems, as seen in equipment taken from retired aircraft.
So what triggered the explosion? The CIA produced a computer generated recreation of the final minutes of the flight, showing flaming residue fuel dripping from the severed tank before the second explosion that doomed the plane.
So why did so many think they saw a missile?
The FBI says witnesses were deceived by sound that led them to believe they were witnessing the beginning of the disaster rather than the aftermath.
Regardless, there remain families still heartbroken by an disaster that could have been prevented, 25 years later.