• U.S.


22 minute read
Howard Chua-Eoan

The sea speaks in many voices. On that first morning after the explosion of TWA Flight 800, amid the overwhelming stench of burning jet fuel and the plane’s charred remains, hundreds of letters floated on the surface of the Atlantic, unanchored memories of diplomats, designers, doctors and teenagers. A postcard of the Statue of Liberty had become an interrupted souvenir, an image of the monument born in France that never made its way home. Out of a camera bag fished from the waste came a list in pencil, in what seemed to be a young girl’s handwriting. Amy: light pink, size 8. Corry: dress. Steph: orange or hunter green–the plan for a spree in Paris, transformed into a haiku of loss. And somewhere lost in the waters too is an unuttered promise, a diamond ring to accompany a proposal to a lover who must now long for the rest of her life. The miasma off the beaches of New York was the cruelest of elements, mixing the memory and desires of the dead with the terror and fears of the living.

“My mother, I came to see if my mother was on the plane,” said a stunned young man, clutching a companion’s hand at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Police whisked him across the street, where he was shown a piece of paper held by an official. The official nodded yes, creating yet another mourner for the 230 people who died off Long Island last week. What killed them? A mechanical malfunction? A technical failure had once sent another hardy Boeing 747 crashing into a Japanese mountain, killing more than 500 people. But this 747 had burst into flames 13,700 ft. in the air. What accident could have caused such a swift and merciless catastrophe?

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. The stories were cautious, with the ifs loudly iterated and “theory” worn like a reluctant fig leaf. Yet by Friday, there were indications that the Federal Government was weighing a decision to order stringent security directives not before seen in peacetime to all U.S. airlines, which would leave little doubt that the fall of TWA Flight 800 was deliberate terror. If the plane was sabotaged, the disaster becomes America’s third milestone on a forced march into a demonic dimension, even as the country had been preparing to soar to Olympic heights. If the 230 who died last week were murdered, then the toll of terror is escalating precipitously: six people died in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993; 168 in the Oklahoma City attack in 1995. And as it waits for the sea to give up its mysteries, America sifts the wreckage for clues to the crime, reassembling the plane and its people, and in doing so, hoping to disperse its grief.


On that humid Wednesday evening in New York, total strangers gathered to share a common fate, waiting outside Gate 27 to board a 7-hr. 15-min. flight to Paris. There was the contingent of high school kids from Pennsylvania off to France for a field trip; there was the 11-year-old exchange student returning home after collecting loads of Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks basketball memorabilia; the Connecticut engineering manager planning a romantic interlude for the woman he hoped would agree to become his fiance; the mother who overcame her fear of flying so she could tour medieval castles in a “bonding” trip with her daughter; the couple who fell in love as flight attendants 21 years ago and worked side by side on the New York-Paris route; the insurance-company executive who hoped to finally strike it rich by cutting a deal in Europe; the French “flat-picking” guitarist, a protege of Chet Atkins’, who was on his way home after being honored at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame. The other passengers ranged from TV producer to unemployed construction worker. All their lives, however, had come to a final intersection.

Jack O’Hara, the TV producer, hated to fly. In May, to cover the Preakness for ABC Sports, he drove 170 miles from New York to Maryland to avoid traveling what would have been a short hop by plane. But last week O’Hara had to go to Paris for the Tour de France–his last assignment after being pink-slipped by the network. To help ease his anxieties, ABC threw in two free tickets for his wife Janet and their daughter Caitlin, 13.

Salvatore Mazzola, 36, the construction worker, was homesick. For the past two months, he had lived with an uncle who owned a pizzeria in Brooklyn. Laid off in March, he had disliked being idle back in Palermo, Sicily, but now he had had enough of America. He missed his wife Angela, 26, and their sons Giuseppe, 7, and Giorgio, 19 months. On Wednesday morning, he called Angela to ask for Giuseppe’s shoe size and to tell her to expect him soon. He couldn’t get on a direct flight to Italy, however; he had to go by way of Paris.

The plane designated Flight 800 was one of the oldest Boeing 747s in use. N93119 was the 153rd 747 to come off the Boeing production line in Renton, Washington, in 1971. At one point, it had been set aside for Eastern Airlines; then it was supposed to become part of prerevolutionary Iran’s official fleet. But it ended up with TWA. N93119 has flown all over the world, but in recent months it has served as a transatlantic carrier, flying mainly from Washington and New York City to Paris and points in the Mediterranean, including Tel Aviv and Athens. A TWA employee who was supposed to serve as first officer on Flight 800 Wednesday night says that N93119 was “flawless” on its Tuesday touchdown at J.F.K. He acknowledges that individual planes have their quirks, but N93119, which he has flown about 60 times during the past 10 years, did not seem to have any. Indeed, there are only minor infractions on its Federal Aviation Administration record: a blown tire on takeoff in 1987 and a leaky oil line that resulted in an engine shutdown in 1988. And thus, at 8:02 p.m. on Wednesday, N93119 left the gate and taxied toward the runway. A few minutes later it would be in the air, flying eastward over the narrow, ragged strip of Long Island on the way to Europe.

Down below, on the barrier beach known as Fire Island, a 15-minute ferry ride from Long Island, Don and Judy Hester were at dinner. A friend had dropped by to tell them of a rare sight: a herd of white-tailed deer had gathered to forage nearby. Groups of two or three deer are common on Fire Island but a whole herd is unusual to see–even for the Hesters, who have lived there for 30 years. Taking their corn on the cob with them, the Hesters strolled up the the boardwalk leading over the sand dunes in front of their property to see if the deer were still within view. They were, grazing in the shadows as the sun began sinking into Long Island’s Great South Bay behind them. The Atlantic, meanwhile, was turning violet in the gathering dusk, the lights of fishing boats just beginning to blink. Then, as the Hesters gazed at the small wonder, two fireballs burst out of the sky to the southeast. The deer scattered.


TWA’s senior management had spent Wednesday celebrating in London. They had just announced a booming quarterly earnings report, increasing revenues more than 12% to almost $1 billion, including a nearly fourfold jump in earnings to over $25 million. It was a miraculous return from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in just a year’s time. After a private victory dinner with champagne, ceo Jeffrey Erickson and corporate communications V.P. Mark Abels left the party to go to bed at the Savoy Hotel; they were scheduled to fly home the next day to TWA headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri. Then the phone call came at 2:30 a.m.: one of the company’s 15 Boeing 747s had gone down off Long Island.

In East Moriches, the town closest to the crash site in the Atlantic, residents and fishermen quickly headed out to find survivors. The crew of a National Guard C-130 practicing search-and-rescue procedures nearby had witnessed the crash, identified the wreckage and reported back to home base. Local law-enforcement and fire departments, large contingents from New York City and even rescue craft from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, responded to emergency calls.

When Cecilia Penney first saw the explosion, she thought, “Is this a nuclear war? It was like I was watching it on TV.” Her husband Randy then joined volunteers on a small rescue fleet of six boats. “The water was on fire from the fuel,” he says. Soon he and his friends had “pulled three bodies out of the water; two of them were still strapped to their seats. We had to get them out of there quick because we didn’t want them to sink.” Of the 18 people Randy saw pulled out of the water, about half had had their clothes blown off. One was a pretty girl in her early 20s. “I tried not to get a good look at them, at their faces,” he says hesitantly. “I didn’t have time to think about what I was seeing–we were out there looking for survivors. And by about 3 a.m., it became apparent there were none.”

By daylight, the rescuers were exhausted. New York City police harbor patrolman Anthony Sgueglia was standing on the dock wearing heavy blue rubber gloves. The bodies Sgueglia found were badly bruised, with most of the limbs broken. The county medical examiner would later say many of the victims technically drowned, though they may already have been unconscious when they hit water. No one was found alive.

In a hotel in St. Louis, the 30-year veteran pilot who had been scheduled to serve as first officer on Flight 800 could not bring himself to feel lucky. He had been pulled off because a fellow first officer needed to meet his deadline for an annual in-flight “check”–part of the system that monitors pilots’ skills throughout their career. “Most pilots are fatalistic,” he said about his good fortune. But he and other TWA pilots had little, if any, doubts about the cause of the tragedy. “That aircraft has had 25 years’ experience without a catastrophic accident,” says a veteran, and “747s don’t just fall out of the air.” Adds the lucky first officer: “There is nothing a crew member can do to make a plane blow up like that.”


The explosive end of Flight 800 stirred immediate speculation of a bomb. The involvement of roughly 100 FBI agents on the case further confirmed notions that terrorists were involved. One theory that arose the day after the crash: a surface-to-air missile had brought down the 747, perhaps a shoulder-launched Stinger missile, of the type smuggled by the U.S. into Afghanistan in the late 1980s to help rebels battle the Soviet-backed government. But while federal officials had not ruled out an attack by a surface-to-air missile, they privately viewed the possibility as remote.

Even if they could not say how the plane blew up, federal aviation authorities were reluctantly coming to the conclusion that the crash was the result of an act of terrorism. Although TWA had been criticized by distraught relatives for failing to confirm the names of victims quickly enough, the airline swiftly turned over the passenger manifest to federal intelligence officials so they could scrutinize it for possible leads.

But the crucial clues are likely to be gleaned from the 747’s so-called black boxes (now actually colored bright orange): one that records the cockpit’s communications with ground control and another that monitors the plane’s vital functions. Given the sudden end of the flight, the second box may provide more useful data. Experts, however, may be able to detect the “signature sounds” of a bomb explosion on the cockpit voice recorder. Last week the sturdily armored recorders were still beneath the sea, but there were indications on Saturday that the steady beeps given off by the black boxes had been detected by sonar.


On Wednesday the plane that would become the fatal Flight 800 to Paris had touched down in New York after a flight that originated at the airport in Athens, Greece, an aging facility with a reputation for lax security. After the explosion, suspicions were immediately voiced that terrorists might have planted a bomb in Athens, set to go off when the plane turned around in New York and headed for France. Greek authorities were livid at the implication.

“Before the Boeing TWA aircraft left for Kennedy airport, it was parked in Pit No. 22, where a team of some 15 maintenance experts inspected it,” said Dionyssios Kalofonos, director of the Greek Civil Aviation Authority. “The plane was not left unattended for a minute.” Furthermore, insisted Evangelos Markoulis, spokesman for the Public Order Ministry, “to be precise, a time-bomb device has 12 hours minus one minute to blow up. Therefore, if such a mechanism had been planted on board the aircraft, it would have gone off after it landed at Kennedy.” A direct flight to New York from Athens takes 10 hours. To Athens’ credit, Greek airport security appears to have improved. Last week passengers on the original TWA flight to New York were screened three times before boarding, once by Greek airport officials and again by TWA employees at check-in and at the gate. At J.F.K. the passengers went through only one screening.

The Greek airport improvement may have happened in a roundabout way–and as a result the Clinton Administration may come under fire for trying to play politics with airline safety. Last February, White House aides tried to squelch a Transportation Department warning to American travelers about lax safeguards against terrorism at the airport. White House aides feared such a warning would prompt a frosty reception for Hillary Clinton when she visited Athens in March to witness the lighting of the Olympic flame. Outraged FAA officials protested that travelers shouldn’t be kept in the dark about the warning–which was required by law. Eventually White House lawyers decided the warning couldn’t be skirted, so it was issued on March 21, a week before Mrs. Clinton’s visit. The White House then pressured the Transportation Department to lift the warning as quickly as possible because newly elected Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos was visiting Washington in May. But the FAA wouldn’t budge until the security problems were fixed, and the warning wasn’t lifted until May 15, six days after Stephanopoulos’ visit.

If the Greeks have indeed fixed their airport problem, how then could a bomb have been put aboard the TWA jet? A terrorist could have flown from Athens to New York and tried to leave a bag with the bomb inside on the plane as he prepared to disembark. But the TWA airliner would have been swept of all bags in the luggage compartments and underneath passenger seats before the Paris-bound passengers were boarded and their luggage loaded onto the aircraft. On the New York-Paris leg, no bag would have been allowed aboard the plane without its passenger on board as well. The terrorist could have persuaded another passenger to unwittingly take his carry-on luggage with the bomb inside. However, airline officials at check-in counters ask every passenger if anyone has asked them to take something aboard the flight. Unless there was a glaring failure in TWA’s security procedures, it is unlikely that the bomb was hidden in a piece of stowed luggage. Airline security experts tell TIME that TWA’s security procedures are better than those of many other American air carriers.

The FBI is investigating some 50 people–maintenance workers, food handlers and members of cleaning crews–who were in or near the TWA jet during its New York layover to see if any one of them could have planted a device. FBI agents will also begin screening any cargo shippers that may have sent boxes on the plane.

But there is another way that a terrorist might have been able to breach security and get a bomb on board. Security experts call it the “Ramzi Yousef method,” even though other terrorists have used it in the past. Yousef was arrested by U.S. agents in Pakistan in February 1995 for allegedly plotting an attack on U.S. airliners in the Pacific, as well as an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. Federal prosecutors allege that on Dec. 11, 1994, Yousef tested his larger plan for attacking the U.S. carriers by boarding a Philippine Airlines flight on the first leg from the Philippines to Japan. He carried with him the components for a bomb, unassembled in his carry-on bag. The X-ray operators never detected the components. On board the plane, Yousef allegedly went to the lavatory and assembled the bomb, which was made up of gun cotton, a nitroglycerin solution, an explosive detonator and a timer all packed into a contact-lens bottle. He then went back to his seat and tucked the bomb under the cushion. He left the plane after its first stop in the central Philippine city of Cebu with the device still under the seat. Two hours later, the device exploded, killing a passenger and forcing the plane to make an emergency landing in Okinawa.

U.S. counterterrorism officials are investigating whether such a scenario might have been played out on the TWA flight. The terrorist could have boarded the airliner in Athens with the unassembled bomb parts in a carry-on bag. At J.F.K., where maintenance and cleaning crews had only three hours to service the plane, all the baggage would have been cleared from the luggage compartments and underneath the seats. But crews probably would not have checked underneath all the seat cushions or opened up panels in the bathroom.

A relatively simple timer on the bomb could have been set to detonate after the airliner was airborne again. If this was the case, U.S. counterterrorism officials suspect the bomber wanted the device to go off much later in the flight, so the incriminating debris would be lost farther out in the Atlantic. The device could have malfunctioned and exploded early. That gives investigators a lucky break. With the crash occurring in 120-ft. water, “there will be a lot of stuff we can collect,” says a U.S. intelligence official. “We’ll find out what went on here. And if it was a bomb, we’ll find out who made it.”


Theory after theory flickered across the news last week, with reports of suspicious cargo that might have slipped onto the plane or of manifestos claiming responsibility for the deed. But any case for a bomb–and against bombers–begins with hard evidence from the crash site itself. And so last week the U.S. Coast Guard methodically raked up the debris off Long Island, 16 miles south of Moriches Inlet. Searchers ranged over an area of 240 square miles, neatly subdivided into nine grids. Each grid was systematically combed in a zigzag pattern; every piece of debris, of trash, every personal item and body part was picked up. More than 400 Coast Guard personnel aboard four helicopters, nine cutters and a C-130 plane are taking part in the recovery process. After everything has been scooped and strained out of the sea, the material will be examined by forensics specialists supervised by Tom Thurman, chief of the FBI laboratory’s explosives unit.

Within the tight circles of terrorism experts, Thurman is a legend. In 1990 he solved what everyone thought was an almost perfect crime, figuring out who destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on Dec. 21, 1988. Thurman matched a fragment of a circuit board from the bomb’s timer to an identical circuit board, which was part of a timer the CIA had recovered from an intact, unexploded bomb seized in Togo in 1986. Thurman’s amazing command of detail led to a Zurich electronics firm that admitted selling 20 such timers to the Libyan regime. The U.S. was then able to charge that Libyan intelligence agents had tagged a brown “bomb bag” containing the radio with stolen Air Malta tags and placed it on an Air Malta Flight KM-190 routed to Frankfurt, whence it eventually was loaded onto Pan Am Flight 103. It was detonated by a simple timing device. Libya has been under U.N. economic sanctions since April 1992. Last week Thurman was on the scene in Long Island as parts of the TWA plane were dragged out of the surf. He and his lab team will conduct microscopic examinations of pieces of the plane’s skin and infrastructure, looking for metal damage characteristic of a powerful bomb blast. “An explosion generates temperatures and velocities of detonation that are far greater than those encountered in a crash scenario due to mechanical failure,” says Chris Ronay, Thurman’s predecessor as chief of the FBI bomb unit. “You get torturing, feathering, pitting and tearing in metal that’s entirely different from damage inflicted by a fire or a fall.”

The lab analysis can determine which way metal was torn and whether it was ripped by the compression of a blast or by being struck by a heavy object. Rivets that loosened or popped off will be examined to determine the direction and force of the pressures to which they were subjected. FBI lab chemists will do a chemical analysis of the metal to see if there are embedded nitrates, the molecular building blocks of all known explosives.

FBI agents know that weapons need not be highly sophisticated to be lethal. “There’s a great danger in looking for the most sophisticated plan,” says Harry Brandon, the FBI’s former deputy assistant director in charge of international terrorism and a supervisor of the Pan Am 103 case. “We tend to think terrorists are invincible, that they’re smart as hell, and often they’re not.” Just lucky. “All you need is a clock and an explosive that’s powerful enough,” says Ronay. On Pan Am Flight 103, the bomb was the size of a coffee cup, but it happened to be placed near the skin of the plane, where it broke through the fuselage and weakened the frame of the aircraft, causing the plane to break up. “If it had been inboard,” says Ronay, “it might not have done that kind of damage. Luggage makes a good buffer.” Terrorists may have been lucky with TWA Flight 800 as well.


Terrorism is warfare by intimidation, by the creation of paranoia. The devilishly clever design involving Flight 800, if indeed it was premeditated, was to lob one over America’s back fence while her people were all in the front room, gathered around the TV watching the Olympics. It was on Atlanta that most of America’s security apparatus was focused. All the more ironic, perhaps, that this fixation grew out of an attack 24 years ago in Munich, when Palestinian terrorists shocked the world by kidnapping and killing more than a dozen members of the Israeli Olympic team right in the middle of the modern, gray concrete Olympic Village. A generation later, while the Olympics have been secured, the rest of America is wide open.

All of Atlanta’s moments now come with shadows. The Olympic Extra newspaper last week had to push aside photos of the torch for headlines involving the FBI. The 63 TV screens in the workroom of the main press center were full of pictures of debris. The very images of triumphal youth and arriving planes that Atlanta had been hoping to send out, like the inflated Gumby and two-story beer can downtown, seemed beside the point, almost tactless.

There is already a small community of people whose legacy is grief. Every time a plane goes down, the Lockerbie families cringe. This time the parallels are almost unnerving: a night-time transatlantic flight destroyed most likely by a terrorist bomb shortly after takeoff. Richard Mack lost his younger brother William in Lockerbie. When he heard the TWA news last week, he couldn’t sleep. His wife Kathleen became ill; his 74-year-old father John collapsed. Other Lockerbie survivors had fits of anxiety and sleeplessness as well. Mack sympathized immediately with the hundreds of families who were reeling from the disaster, unable to comprehend, unable to get information. He remembers arguing with a Pan Am representative who refused to check the names of his brother, his traveling companion and another relative who might have been on the flight. When he finally got help, the airline employee said, “Well, we have two out of three. You’re lucky on the one.” The TWA incident, says Mack, “was like hitting a brick wall. You know what these people are going through, now and forever.”

If terrorists cold enough to remain nameless have broken through America’s cordon of safety, these experiences may be repeated over and over again. The consequences will almost certainly reverberate beyond this summer, beyond the besmirched beaches of New York. Early last Friday morning on Fire Island, Judy Hester walked down to the surf in front of her cottage. As she watched the sun peeking over the Atlantic, she saw that the glassy calm of the ocean during the past day and a half had disintegrated. In its place were “a lot of choppy, wind-driven waves.” Unsettled by the sight, she returned home and phoned her sister Peg. Even before Judy could finish her description, Peg broke in to say she understood. “She thinks it’s a sign of all the distressed souls still out there,” says Judy. “The ones who were lost in the night.”

–Reported by Lisa Granatstein, Jenifer Mattos, Marguerite Michaels and Elaine Rivera/New York, Elaine Shannon and Douglas Waller/Washington, Wendy Cole/St. Louis, Jerry Hannifin/Cape Canaveral and Greg Burke/Rome

For TWA Flight 800 news and analysis throughout the week, visit the TIME News Center on CompuServe or on the Web at https://Time.com/twa

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