TWA Flight 800 Disaster

Two thunderclaps on an otherwise still night, plummeting balls of flame in the sky, and seconds later, a return to a now-eerie silence.

TWA Flight 800 Disaster

Two thunderclaps on an otherwise still night, plummeting balls of flame in the sky, and seconds later, a return to a now-eerie silence. That was the time it took for all 230 people aboard Trans World Airlines Flight 800 to die, and for the lives of their surviving families, friends and neighbors to be altered shockingly and irrevocably. At 8:48 p.m. last Wednesday, the TWA 747 jumbo jet was 31 minutes into its scheduled six-hour flight from New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Paris, climbing steadily beyond Long Island towards the Atlantic Ocean at an altitude that reached 13,700 feet. Then came the disintegration, followed by trails of fire and smoke. Afterward, all that remained of the huge aircraft and its contents was debris spread across a 12-by-20-mile stretch of ocean, ranging from huge chunks of fuselage to badly burned bodies to a still-legible postcard and one running shoe, bobbing atop the water when it was found the following morning.

The final circumstances of TWA Flight 800 are all too clear, and marked the worst air disaster since terrorists blew up an Air India flight from Vancouver to London in 1985, killing 329 people. At week's end, the cause of the disaster was still unknown, but combined U.S. law enforcement authorities appeared to be moving towards a chilling and infuriating conclusion: sabotage. The notion was enhanced by the fact that the world's eyes were already focused on the United States for the start of the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.

A day after the crash, a law enforcement official said that the FBI was "leaning more towards the possibility that it was a bomb that caused the plane to explode." Jim Kallstrom, an agent with the FBI's anti-terrorism task force, said his group had set up a home page on the Internet and established a toll-free number in an attempt to exchange and solicit information. And, said Kallstrom, "we are looking at this as a criminal investigation." But the office of the U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said only that authorities were investigating "multiple possible explanations."

Whatever the cause, the explosion rocked lives and sensibilities on both sides of the Atlantic, and left behind a trail of lost lives and dreams that at times seemed almost unbearable in their poignancy. Among the dead: a 25-year-old man whose girlfriend had accepted his marriage proposal less than two hours previously; 16 students and five chaperones from a French immersion program at a high school in the tiny Pennsylvania town of Montoursville; a wealthy philanthropist who decided to take an earlier-than-planned flight home to her husband and children; an award-winning sports television network executive who took his wife and daughter, but left his twin sons behind, on his last-ever assignment for the ABC network. No Canadians were aboard: the closest connection was the 25-year-old newly engaged man, Michel Breistroff, a Frenchman who played junior hockey in Quebec and Ontario in the late 1980s. He had proposed to his fiancée, Heidi Snow, by telephone from the airport at 6:45 that night.

U.S federal authorities took great pains to avoid labelling the crash an act of terrorism until they had conclusive evidence. President Bill Clinton, in remarks from the White House, urged Americans to "not jump to conclusions." The White House was clearly seeking to avoid a repetition of the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, in which 167 people died. In that incident, suspicion initially focused on Middle East terrorists. Ultimately, however, investigators arrested and charged members of a local grassroots anti-government militia group.

Yet from the outset, it was clear that federal authorities regarded terrorism as the likeliest cause of the downing of Flight 800. Although the inquiry officially remained an accident investigation, the FBI treated it as a criminal case. The bureau moved within hours of the crash to create a joint terrorism task force, with more than 100 FBI agents working alongside other federal law enforcement agencies and New York City police. One of the potential subjects for investigation was a warning note sent to the London office of a Saudi Arabian-owned newpaper the day before the crash, warning that an American target would be hit within the next 24 hours and that "all will be suprised by the size of the attack, the place and the time." The note, sent to the Arabic-language newspaper al-Hayat, was signed by the Movement for Islamic Change, one of two groups that have claimed responsibility for a November bomb attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed seven people. As is almost always the case after a major tragedy of indeterminate cause, federal authorities also received an unspecified number of calls from unidentified people claiming responsibility.

But the most compelling signs of terrorism were the circumstances of the giant aircraft's sudden fall from the sky. There was no advance evidence of distress or mechanical failure, other than a frantic "mayday" monitored on radio just before the flight disappeared from radar screens - and which may not have even come from the aircraft. Although eyewitness reports of sudden disasters are often regarded as inaccurate and inconsistent, the volume and similarity of accounts in this case - with almost all of them describing two explosions - suggested to some experts that the only potential causes were an onboard bomb, a surface-to-air missile or a freak explosion of the aircraft's fuel tanks, which carry 250,000 lb. when full. The last scenario is considered unlikely, however, because it has never happened before. As one National Safety Transportation Board official put it: "There is no known mechanical failure that can cause the kind of fireball we saw in this incident."

Similarly, authorities discounted the surface-to-air missile theory because the aircraft was well above the normal range of even the most sophisticated Stinger missiles. By a process of elimination, then, experts said that a bomb appeared most probable: some new plastic explosives cannot be detected by the kind of baggage scanners in use at Kennedy airport.

By week's end, authorities had recovered the bodies of about half of the dead. The scene of search-and-rescue efforts along the Long Island coast - an elegant area renowned as a getaway retreat for monied New Yorkers - was particulariy jarring for the contrasts it offered. Despite police roadblocks aimed at sealing off the area, locals and tourists flocked to watch coast guard cutters unloading pieces from the crash. Meanwhile, workers in white jumpsuits conducted a horrifying shuttle of body bags into white and silver refrigerator trucks where they were kept because the local morgue could not accommodate them.

For the bereaved family members and other mourners, there were visits from trauma counsellors and group therapy sessions at a Kennedy airport hotel to try and ease their anguish. As well, there was one substantive revelation that served as consolation. In spite of the badly burned and damaged state of many of the bodies, the medical examiner conducted autopsies, Dr. Charles Wetli, concluded that "for all practical purposes, it was an instantaneous death." Regardless of the cause, the trauma of TWA Flight 800 seems likely to remain burned on the collective American consciousness for years to come. For the 230 unsuspecting people who were aboard, there was just one last and sudden flash of light - and then, eternal darkness.

Maclean's July 29, 1996