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TWA probe took emotional toll on FBI agents

Capozzi TWA November 17, 1997
Web posted at: 11:49 a.m. EST (1649 GMT)

From Correspondent Peg Tyre

NEW YORK (CNN) -- In a news conference Tuesday, the FBI is expected to officially close its criminal investigation into the crash of TWA Flight 800. For the men and women who worked to piece together the crash's particulars, it is an experience that will not easily be forgotten.

Sue Hillard Capozzi, Chris Voss and Tommy Corrigan were three of the 500 FBI agents who took part in the largest and most extensive criminal investigation in history.

High-profile tours of duty

All three agents are familiar with brutal crime scenes. Capozzi, an evidence expert and an unvarnished workaholic, came to Calverton from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where a bomb had killed 19 U.S. servicemen.

"We were watching CNN after work and saw the crash," she said. The July 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, en route from New York to Paris, killed all 230 people on board.

"At that point, we knew that we would probably be called back."

At Calverton, she helped map out where personal effects were found and the condition of each item.

"I would get telephone calls from family members saying that this is really special -- have you seen it," she said. "Things that you wouldn't expect to be important. Teddy bears, certain articles of clothing, jewelry, a photograph that the person had taken with them on the flight."

Planner

Voss and Corrigan had just finished a three-year investigation into the World Trade Center bombing. In contrast to that crime scene, a towering office building, this one was 120 feet underwater and covered 225 square miles.

Their work on the crash also took them to France, where they interviewed families of victims. Corrigan described them as "the most difficult interviews I've ever done in my whole police career. They were gut-wrenching, they were extremely, extremely difficult, they were painful."

Difficult investigation

Voss Corrigan

The investigation itself brought plenty of frustration and few rewards. Agents were heartened when some wreckage showed chemical residue, then watched their best lead crumble. No metal damage supported the residue evidence.

Then came Pierre Salinger and the frenzy around the friendly fire cover-up theory -- one that the agents still take as a personal insult.

"I go into a delicatessen and the guy would ask me, you know, he was convinced the military had shot it down. So I stopped going to that deli," Corrigan said.

Perspectives changed forever

Family life suffered as the agents moved into hotels to be closer to the hangar.

"I think my son has gained somewhat of an appreciation for what I do. I think he's proud of what I do," said investigator Voss.

"I spent the first five months of the investigation living out by the hangar, I got home on the weekends on occasion and I said to him, 'This is important, I have to do it.' And his answer was, 'Well, lately, everything you do is important.'"

Capozzi worked 98 days straight, took a break when her father died, then returned to the hangar. In that difficult time, listening to the victim's families helped her reset her priorities.

"They never started the conversation about their loved one as what he did for a living or how much money he made. That didn't matter. And that struck me very hard," she said.

"Before this crash all I really thought about was my career and watching the families go through this, I realized that there is a lot more than just a career," she said.

The men and women who worked on the investigation will move on, but they say they will never forget.

 
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