No sign of survivors in TWA explosion off Long Island
Witnesses describe fireball in sky
July 18, 1996
NEW YORK (CNN) -- TWA Flight 800 en route to Paris from New York City exploded and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean Wednesday night. The U.S. Coast Guard said there was no immediate sign of survivors.
TWA Vice President Mike Kelly said there were 212 passengers and 17 crew members aboard.
The Coast Guard was sending "every available aircraft" and boats to the site, about 15 miles from Moriches Inlet at the east end of Long Island. TWA and federal investigators also were at the scene.
The Boeing 747 jet, which had arrived from Athens, Greece, about three hours earlier, left John F. Kennedy Airport for Charles DeGaulle Airport about 8 p.m. EDT, and disappeared from the radar screen at 8:40 p.m., Kelly said.
"I don't think I need to tell you how concerned and upset we are. This is the worst possible thing that can happen, and we will attend to it in the best way possible," he said. (519K AIFF or WAV sound)
The Coast Guard was notified of the explosion and reports of life rafts in the water, Chief Petty Officer Steve Sapp said. Rescue teams were recovering bodies and debris from the crash, and a temporary morgue was set up near the scene. (429K AIFF or WAV sound)
President Clinton expressed "deep concern" about the crash and was monitoring developments, a White House spokesman said.
Eyewitnesses describe fireball
Eyewitness Sven Faret was piloting a private plane off Long Island about the time of the crash, he told CNN affiliate WNYW-TV in New York. "We saw a giant ball; an instant later you just saw pieces drop out of it."
It was "definitely in the air," he said.
Eyewitness Eileen Daly said she was walking on the beach with her 14-year-old son when they saw the explosion.
"We were out on the beach and he says, 'Oh look,' and we saw what looked like fireworks in the sky, big white flash," she said.
"It turned into a big orange fireball that stretched from the sky down to the water, then it broke into two pieces, then it just fell into the water." At first, she thought it was fireworks. Then, she said she thought, "Oh my God, it's an airplane." (391K AIFF or WAV sound)
She disagreed with other eyewitness accounts that likened the explosion to the Challenger space shuttle disaster, explaining that in that explosion she could see a little bit of the shuttle as it caught on fire. "This, you saw nothing but flames."
The cause of the explosion was not known, but terrorism expert Larry Johnson said, "This was a bomb on board, without a doubt. You do not get these kinds of catastrophic mid-air explosions in airliners without an explosive on board."
Johnson said he had his own "short list" of suspects, but stressed that it was too premature to list any.
Too early to speculate
However, former National Transportation Safety Board official Vernon Grosse said even bringing up the possibility of terrorism so early was irresponsible. He said eyewitness descriptions suggested alternatives to a bombing.
"It might be that there was a fire on board, and then the plane exploded," he said.
Former Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo, who resigned this month after sharply criticizing federal aviation officials, said the plane could have experienced engine failure, but it could also have been the target of terrorists. (576K AIFF or WAV sound)
In a study of the potential for terrorism at U.S. airports, her staff was able to penetrate airport security about 40 percent of the time, she said.
"My staff and I could literally get through security, and they weren't even trying to be terrorists," she said. Her office repeatedly had recommended that security be beefed up, she said, and one of the last things she did before she left office was to formally raise the issue again.
U.S. airports were on a heightened state of alert because of the arrival of Olympic athletes from all over the world in the last few weeks. The Olympic Games begin in Atlanta on Friday.
"I think we need to revisit security, and whether the U.S. really did everything it promised to after Pan AM 103, and if it didn't, why not?" she said.
At a hasty news conference Wednesday night, Kelly confirmed that security levels had been raised for the Olympics, and that TWA had complied with the new levels.
Searchers had clear weather and little wind as they went about their task, although a light fog was reported in the area of the crash.
Sapp said six helicopters, three Coast Guard cutters and a Navy P-3 rescue plane were dispatched, as well as 10 rescue boats.
"Our boats and our helicopters and our airplanes will stay out there until they can no longer search," Sapp said.
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