On This Day

TWA Flight 800, Flight 800 wreckage
John H. Cornell/AP
The wreckage of TWA Flight 800 sits in a hangar in Calverton, N.Y., July 8, 1999.

On This Day: TWA Flight 800 Explodes off Long Island Coast

July 17, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 erupted into flames 13 minutes after takeoff and fell into the Atlantic, killing 230. The investigation into the crash took years and left many unsatisfied.

Explosion Aboard TWA Flight 800

Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight 800 took off from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport at 8:19 p.m. on July 17, bound for Paris on the way to its ultimate destination in Rome. At 8:31 p.m., while flying off the southern coast of Long Island, the Boeing 747 exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, N.Y.

“TWA Flight 800 streaked across the darkening ocean sky like a shooting star, then exploded in a raging ball of flame,” wrote Paul Schwartzman in the New York Daily News. “For witnesses … they saw debris raining from the sky. They saw an ocean lit up by fire. They saw mushrooming clouds of smoke.”

All 230 people aboard TWA Flight 800 (212 passengers, two pilots, two flight engineers and 14 flight attendants) were killed. Rescue crews recovered all 230 bodies, most of which were badly burned and had broken bones.

“Disaster, as is its wont, chose its victims mercilessly and indiscriminately,” wrote The New York Times’ N.R. Kleinfield. The victims included a married couple of 56 years, an 11-year-old French exchange student, two couples on their honeymoon, and 16 members of the high school French club in Montoursville, Pa.

Controversy immediately surrounded the tragedy, with many eyewitnesses claiming to have seen a bright “flare” that some believed to be a missile rising toward the aircraft.

“In the 24 hours after the disaster, experts were already speculating about a powerful bomb that may have found its way onto the plane or of people yet unknown who may have launched a small missile against the airliner from a vantage point as yet undetected,” wrote Time.

The FBI and NTSB Investigations

The FBI and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) began a large-scale investigation. The FBI interviewed hundreds of witnesses, while the NTSB gathered thousands of parts composing 95 percent of the plane and pieced them together in a New York hangar.

The FBI investigation ended in November 1997 after it determined there was no criminal act. The NTSB investigation took four years to complete; on Aug. 22, 2000, it issued its final report.

It concluded, “The source of ignition energy for the explosion could not be determined with certainty, but, of the sources evaluated by the investigation, the most likely was a short circuit outside of the CWT that allowed excessive voltage to enter it through electrical wiring associated with the fuel quantity indication system.”

Flight 800 Conspiracy Theories

By the time the final report was released, the public already believed that foul play caused the disaster. Thus, some conspiracy theorists thought that the NTSB and FBI investigation was a cover-up. The main theories were that Flight 800 was shot down by a Navy missile, bombed by terrorists, or shot down by a shoulder-fired stinger missile.

Their assertions are fueled by the reports of eyewitnesses seeing a “flare,” generally believed to be a missile or rocket, rapidly ascending toward the aircraft, as well as traces of bomb-making materials found in the wreckage.

Others, however, believe that the government’s investigation is truthful. Brian Dunning of Skeptoid points out that most eyewitnesses were more than a minute away as sound travels and therefore would not have looked up until after the plane exploded.

“Remember, the majority of people who reported that it looked like a missile struck the aircraft, did not start watching until at least one minute after the explosion happened,” he says.

Reference: Air Disasters


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