The world was left reeling after an airplane exploded minutes after it left JFK Airport on July 17, 1996. According to CNN, the tragic accident took place somewhere off Long Island, New York and killed all 230 people who were onboard. The incident was horrific and led to several questions, such as what could’ve transpired on TWA Flight 800, what were the circumstances surrounding the event, and whether something sinister had happened on the flight. Many thought that terrorists had triggered the explosion.
Investigators got to work and conducted what was thought to be the largest ever investigation in the world of aviation at that point. It took a lot of money and time for investigators to come up with answers and connect the dots. According to Business Insider, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded "the probable cause of the TWA flight 800 accident was an explosion of the center wing fuel tank." And yet, things remained murky for many who believed that they didn’t have access to the real truth behind one of the most tragic airplane accidents of all time.
John Seaman, who lost his niece in the crash, told USA Today that it is important to let go of conspiracy theories. He said, "I think the passage of time is helpful. It allows some of us to forget a lot of the details. The loved ones are not forgotten. To us, it’s about healing." This is the tragic true story of TWA Flight 800.
TWA Flight 800 crashed a short time after takeoff
According to WNYC, on July 17, 1996, the doomed Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight 800 Boeing 747-131 jetliner was heading from New York City towards Paris, and was scheduled to stop there before continuing on to its final destination in Rome. However, after just 12 minutes, chaos ensued in the sky as an explosion occurred. Then several others were heard right after the first one. Per NBC News, the explosion occurred in the evening around 8:30 p.m. Sadly, the plane was destroyed on the spot and its debris ended up in the Atlantic Ocean close to East Moriches, New York. There were 212 passengers and 18 crew members on the flight. No one survived the horrific incident.
The incident was a shock and a tragedy, of course, but since it took place just a couple of days before the 1996 Summer Olympics were supposed to begin in Atlanta, many wondered whether this was an intentional incident that was planned beforehand by forces unknown.
The reason for the crash was unclear
Terrorism was strongly suspected when TWA Flight 800 crashed in 1996. According to CNN, at the time of the crash, the U.S. was already on high alert because of a number of terrorist acts that had taken place a few years before. Additionally, some believed that notorious high-profile figures such as Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein could be involved in the accident.
Ex-CIA director and Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta remarked that Gaddafi was a strong suspect because Libya had been linked to an earlier incident involving Pan Am Flight 103 in Scotland, known as the Lockerbie Bombing. Panetta said, "The investigation was looking at almost every possibility, including state actors … we were looking at Iraq and Saddam Hussein. We were looking at, you know, the possibility of even Iran might have played a role in this."
There were other theories as well. As per NBC News, another angle that was explored was the possibility of a missile being fired from a Navy ship. Robert Francis, who was the Vice Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, later said that it was impossible to get answers in a short period. He recalled, "There was no ability to make a determination quickly. We were picking up the wreckage in 130 feet of water."
The passengers were from different backgrounds
The passengers on board TWA Flight 800 were from all walks of life: some were students, some were businesspeople, others were well-known public figures. According to the Associated Press, actor Joe Mantegna spoke about losing his English teacher from high school, Lois Van Epps, in the crash. He said that she motivated him to pursue acting. He remarked, "Up to that point, I had no more interest in acting than the man in the moon. She was absolutely instrumental and vital to me in being the performer I am today."
Another victim from the crash was celebrated French musician Marcel Dadi who was going back to France after a trip to Nashville. The town administrator for Tenafly, New Jersey, Robert Miller also lost his life in the crash. There were also several students from the Montoursville Area High School French Club on the flight (via PennLive.) A student from the school said that his peers "were the kind of kids that everybody liked."
The local community was left shattered after news of the crash spread and they mourned collectively at the Montoursville Area High School. A pastor told mourners to allow themselves to feel what they needed to feel. He said, "Don’t be afraid to cry."
Several witnesses saw TWA Flight 800 crash
The explosion of TWA Flight 800 definitely didn’t go unnoticed. According to CNN, there were as many as 755 witnesses who were a part of the investigation. Some witnesses were on a boat, one person was in a helicopter, someone else was on shore. Eyewitnesses were definitely stunned by what they saw. The stories were different, but many did point out that they felt like they saw "a flare of fireworks" heading in the direction of the jetliner before it exploded. Many assumed that it was a "missile" or a "rocket." As per ABC News, a witness spoke about seeing "what he thought was a shooting star traveling west to east, coming from the south shore, over Fire Island." Meanwhile, another person who saw the accident said that she saw "what appeared to be a ‘contrail’ which appeared to be coming from an object which was flying toward the plane which she had been watching."
A former Navy commander, James Donaldson said that the sheer number of witnesses who were vouching for the missile theory was something that he found difficult to overlook. He said that one look at the witness reports would make most people wonder what really happened. For him, it was hard to ignore that hundreds of people felt that something was awry at the time of the accident.
It is believed that most victims weren’t conscious
After the TWA Flight 800 disaster, many wondered what the last few moments at the time of the crash could have been like for the victims. As per an Associated Press report, it’s possible that the passengers didn’t consciously experience a free fall before dying, something that could potentially be very scary and upsetting to go through. Dr. Charles Wetli, a medical examiner from Suffolk County said, "I don’t think anybody was conscious as they fell from 13,000 feet to the water. When the explosion occurred, some may have had a sudden panic attack for maybe one or two seconds." He further said that he thinks that all the passengers had lost consciousness when they hit the water.
As far as Wetli was concerned, the passengers probably experienced what a car accident victim would go through if they hit a wall at 400 miles per hour. He said, "It’s an extremely violent whiplash, a separation of the skull from the spinal cord, an instant loss of consciousness.″
Rescue officials were traumatized by what they saw
A police officer from Long Island, Vincent Termine had witnessed several traumatic incidents in his life. According to the Independent, Termine was just getting done with a meal when he noticed a fireball in the sky and assumed it was the sun. However, what he was actually witnessing was TWA Flight 800 exploding. When Termine found out later that a 747 had exploded in the sky, he was shocked. He assumed that it would have been a smaller plane. He said, "I never thought it would be anything on that scale."
When Termine realized what the flash was, he immediately contacted the local aviation unit, which sent a helicopter and figured out a way to get to the site of the accident. The police officer shared that looking for bodies was a traumatic experience and left him shaken. One of the bodies he came across was that of a girl who must’ve been around 13 years old. Termine said, "That’s the worst part. Anytime in police work you deal with fatalities, but children are always the hardest. Because they’re innocent."
He also said that not all the bodies that they found were in a good condition. He said, "We recovered some people that were in half at the torso, people that were missing limbs, or a part of their heads…. every imaginable configuration." Throughout the ordeal, Termine hoped against hope that the team would come across someone who was still alive.
A pastor prayed with the victims’ families
As news of the explosion of TWA Flight 800 spread, families of the victims mourned together at a hotel close to Kennedy Airport (via USA Today.) The Fire Department of New York’s chaplain, Rev. Mychal Judge rushed to the hotel to pray with them and offer support. He held Mass and interacted with the families. John Seaman said that Judge was very helpful and "he got to know the families, he prayed with us." He called the reverend "a great consolation."
Rev. Judge was so committed to the cause that he helped organize a memorial service for the families each year until 2001. He told the families, "Every year that you come here, you make this spot more blessed and more sacred if that’s possible," when they gathered annually at the park. Sadly, a few weeks after his last service, he was killed in the 9/11 terror attacks.
Rescuers worked for a year
According to a report from the New York Times, straight after the accident, 99 bodies were recovered while navy divers worked for months to look for the others. After the plane hit the water, most of it was submerged deep in the Atlantic Ocean which meant that rescuers had to spend a lot of time tracing victims’ bodies. In the end, it took rescuers about a year to find all the bodies from TWA Flight 800, per CNN.
According to the Washington Post, one of the investigators came across a passenger they knew: a dentist from Long Island. A medical examiner, Charles Wetli, who was a part of the investigation process, remarked, "It’s never very pleasant when you’re in this field and you have to autopsy someone you know."
Investigators had another challenge: identifying the victims. The delay in the process made things harder for those who were waiting to hear about their family members and loved ones from the crash. There were passengers from around 13 countries on the flight. Their families were agitated and claimed that Wetli and his team weren’t doing enough to speed up the process. Wetli stood by his team like a rock in countless media appearances and said later, "As far as I am concerned, my staff did a phenomenal job. I think handling a task of this sort is nothing short of herculean."
Investigations into the TWA Flight 800 crash took four years
According to the New York Times, it took official investigators four long years to release their findings. The goal was to understand the TWA Flight 800 crash from every perspective and think about all the possible scenarios that could’ve caused the explosion. The investigation was believed to be the most exhaustive at that point in the world of commercial aircrafts.
Of course, many laypeople and loved ones of victims who sought answers were convinced that not all the details were known or revealed to them, even in the final report. Per the National Transportation Safety Board, the plane exploded on account of "vapors in the center fuel tank" that were possibly caused due to a short circuit. This statement didn’t please many as they firmly believed that there had to be a better explanation for the accident.
According to CNN, the official report was essentially a theory and not definitive because it was impossible to be sure. Meanwhile, the FBI had concluded a year after the crash that it had no links to any criminal activity.
The findings are debated
In 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board released its last report on the horrific crash of THW Flight 800 and also came up with new safety recommendations to avoid similar accidents in the future (via The New York Times.) This was believed to be the most expensive investigation ever undertaken by the National Transportation Safety Board. But despite all the time and resources spent on it, the official conclusion wasn’t palatable for many.
The ex-chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Robert Francis said that he was inundated by many messages from those who thought that there was a terrorism angle that was worth delving into further. He said that he chooses to ignore "very insulting emails, asking me when am I going to tell the truth and asking why am I lying." Plus, many eyewitnesses had insisted that they had spotted what looked like a missile. Francis, however, was convinced that the official conclusion was the most likely explanation. He said, "We studied if it had been a missile, what would it have done to the fuselage? We had scientists in the desert shooting rockets into old fuselages. We didn’t find a single piece of wreckage that would have pointed to that kind of explosion."
The TWA Flight 800 wreckage was destroyed
According to CNN, in 2021, it was announced that the plane wreckage from TWA Flight 800 would be destroyed completely. The wreckage had been used by students who were studying accident investigations for almost two decades. Earlier, while searching for the plane in the Atlantic Ocean, investigators were able to find over 95% of the aircraft and put together the bits and pieces.
The recovered parts were later reconstructed and kept at the National Transportation Safety Board’s training center in Ashburn, Virginia. After the center’s lease was up, officials made the decision to destroy the plane’s wreckage. The organization had promised the victims’ family members that the wreckage would only be used to train investigators and would never be put on display for members of the public.
A statement from the National Transportation Safety Board made things clear. It read, "To honor this agreement made with the families of the victims of TWA Flight 800, the NTSB will work closely with a federal government contractor to dismantle the reconstruction and destroy the wreckage."
The accident left behind scars
The crash left behind scars for many. According to CBS New York, a woman whose fiancé died in the crash took it upon herself to come up with a grief counseling and support group for those who’ve lost their loved ones to tragic plane accidents. Heidi Snow Cinader’s group is called the AirCraft Casualty Emotional Support Services (ACCESS.) She was inspired from her own experience, when she found some strength after she felt heard and understood at a meeting of families who gathered to mourn the loss of their loved ones who died in the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 bombing.
Also, right after the tragedy, families were given permission by the government to survey the crash site and observe the rescue efforts from close quarters. They hoped that this would help them come to terms with the accident. A grief counselor who was involved in the process, said that it was painful for everyone, to say the least. He explained, "It’s incomprehensible the grief they are going through. We want to do everything we can to help."