Revisiting TWA 800 Twenty Years Later
On that summer night twenty years ago, Flight 800 lifted off from Runway 22R at New York’s JFK Airport on a non-stop service to Paris, France, with 230 souls on board. Upon its departure climb through 13,000 feet, the jumbo jet suffered a catastrophic explosion within the center fuel tank, leading to the eventual disintegration of the airplane. The cause of the ignition source of the explosion has never been unequivocally determined, and to this day it has remained open to rumor and speculation. While the official NTSB report details electrical arcing taking place within a chafed wiring bundle in the vapor-filled fuel tank as the ignition source, other theories and claims of a government conspiracy have been hotly debated in the years since the plane and its occupants were recovered from the sea floor off Moriches Inlet.
The TWA 800 memorial, located in Smith Point Park in Shirley, Suffolk County NY, was dedicated in 2002 and includes lush gardens and a sweeping spiral layout that allows visitors to sit in quiet reflection and view testimonials to loved ones, engraved in stone benches and bricks along the walkways. A row of flags representing the nations whose citizens were aboard the flight lines one of the entrances to the memorial, today flying at half staff. The centerpiece of the memorial is a black granite wall engraved with the names of the lost, adorned with flowers left in their memory. It is interesting to sit there, considering the circumstances that begat its creation. One is surrounded by the sounds of a day at the beach replete with laughter of friends and family, music, the crashing of waves, and the blowing of lifeguard whistles, underscoring the fact that amidst tragedy, life does indeed carry on.
Observing the anniversary was Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone. In acknowledging the losses felt by those who had made the journey to the memorial, he stated to the families “Today is about healing and remembering; while time helps to heal wounds, those wounds never go away completely. But here in this place, at this sacred site, we have made clear that the truly special people that were lost 20 years ago will not be forgotten.”
Also present was John Seaman, head of the TWA Flight 800 Families Association. In addition to thanking all the agencies responsible for helping them deal with the overwhelming grief of the crash, as well as those who designed, built, and maintained the memorial, he eloquently chronicled the pain felt by families left behind. “Here we were, strangers…in shock. Exhausted. And stunned by disbelief. Desperate to do something, but powerless to do anything. We were helpless, on the shoreline of Long Island.” He also spoke of the importance of the memorial as a sacred place which will forever honor their grief, as well as commemorate those who were lost. “In every day, in every evening like tonight, the silent voice of our memorial will continue into the far reaches of time.”
One of the agencies tasked with recovery operations in the aftermath of the disaster was the US Coast Guard. Commander J. Ely recalled his experiences in carrying out his duties for the USCG as he spoke to the large crowd that had assembled. “It was a massive effort…so many people came together, I can’t thank enough the American Red Cross who looked out for us, they came and spoke to us and made sure we were OK…we were involved too, we were struggling too…it was hard for all of us.” He lamented the fact that what had begun as a rescue operation as they first approached the slicks of burning jet fuel and floating debris early that evening eventually transitioned into a recovery effort as the realization dawned that there were no survivors of Flight 800.
A highlight of the solemn ceremony was a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace”, as sung by Kelsey Rogers, whose sister Kimberly was one of the twenty-one students and chaparones on a student exchange program from Montoursville, Pennsylvania that perished that evening. Then, in a ritual familiar to many, flowers were distributed to the families, many of whom trekked to the water’s edge to cast them into the moonlit surf. There, they stood as close as possible to the spot where their loved ones came to rest, looking out over the waves to consider the passage of all this time and what had become of their lives since then.
In the years that have passed since the crash of Flight 800, a number of efforts have been made to improve aviation safety and see to the needs and rights of airline passengers. Members of one victims’ support group in particular, the National Air Disaster Alliance and Foundation(www.planesafe.org), were present at the ceremony, including its president, Matt Ziemkiewicz. In addition to its members having provided valuable emotional support to survivors and family members in the wake of several more recent crashes, NADA/F has been vocal in advocating for, and instrumental in pressing the FAA to require aircraft manufacturers and operators to install newly-designed and cost-effective fuel tank inerting systems. In 2008, Matt, whose sister Jill was a flight attendant on Flight 800, met with the White House Office of Management and Budget along with other Flight 800 family members to press for rulemaking approval in tank inerting to avoid any additional delays in promoting this requirement to be adopted industry-wide.
Flight 800 was also a notable accident in that it provided the final push to ensure passage of the 1996 Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act, which sets out a number of responsibilities to ensure an appropriate, coordinated multi-agency response to air disasters going forward. This legislation was created to address and remedy the lack of consistent disaster response planning on the part of air carriers, and the lack of coordination of the many local, state, and federal agencies that respond to air disasters. Among other things, it requires designating qualified personnel that would provide for the emotional care of survivors and family members of the deceased, ensure the timely notification of relatives, provide briefings, accommodations and transportation, and also prevent premature contact with affected individuals by attorneys.
In his closing remarks, Mr. Seaman put forth an appeal to the audience that, after the passage of twenty years and in an effort to make peace within themselves, it might be worth considering releasing oneself from the obligation of grief and suffering, and to allow oneself to forgive. “Yes, life has been cruel, cruel to us. But maybe, just maybe, maybe it’s time to learn to forgive. Not for God’s sake. But for our own sake. Because I believe forgiveness can free us…free us to live.”
William Rizzo started watching airplanes land behind his house when he was 10 years old, and finally started taking pictures of them in 1997. As a psychologist with experience in treating posttraumatic stress, he also supports air safety research and clinical interventions for victims of aviation disasters. His doctoral dissertation examines the mental health services provided to such affected individuals. One day he may actually finish getting his pilot’s license.
All photos by William Rizzo