TWA FLIGHT 800
JULY 18, 1996
Kwame Holman begins our coverage of the crash of TWA Flight 800, which ended in flames off the coast of Long Island, New York.
SPOKESMAN: The lights around that wreckage is the rescue operation which is in full force right now.
KWAME HOLMAN: Trans World Airlines' Flight 800 left New York's Kennedy Airport a little after 8 PM, bound for Paris. Eyewitnesses said the huge 747 with 228 people on board exploded in mid-air before plunging into the Atlantic about 10 miles off Moriches Inlet on Long Island.
CECELIA PENNEY, Witness: Well, we were sitting on my father-in-law's boat, and all of a sudden my husband pointed to the sky and said, "Look! Somebody shot up a flare." And we all looked up, and a couple of seconds later, we just saw this burst of flames, and it separated.
MR. HOLMAN: Roland And Randy Penney got in their boat and sped to the scene of the crash.
ROLAND PENNEY, Witness: There was debris all over, seats all over, duffle bags, shoes, you name it, it was there--parts of the airplane, wings, tail sections. It was all over, probably a two square mile area of solid debris, and it was also on fire over there.
MR. HOLMAN: Also among the eyewitnesses were Air National Guardsmen who were flying a nighttime training mission.
UNIDENTIFIED CREW MEMBER: The crew was startled by a big flash of light in the sky, and we turned our attention and the aircraft over in that direction. The next thing you know we see huge amounts of smoke off the ocean floor, and we proceeded over there within a couple of minutes.
SECOND UNIDENTIFIED CREW MEMBER: What I saw was a flaming, spiraling fireball with a secondary fireball come off of that. I was about five miles away. And we flew directly towards it, and we were there within a few moments.
MR. HOLMAN: Wreckage and fuel burned for hours on the water as rescue crews conducted a futile search for survivors, the scene illuminated by flares suspended by parachutes. Within hours of daybreak, rescuers have recovered dozens of bodies from the 60-degree waters but still no survivors. The U.S. Navy will help probe the ocean floor for the jet's black box recorders in waters about 100 feet deep. Aboard the plane were 18 crew members and 210 passengers, including a second complement of TWA pilots and flight attendants on their way to work in Europe and 16 Montoursville, Pennsylvania High School students, members of the French club, on a long-awaited trip to Paris. As news of the crash came last night, dozens of parents and students rushed to the school, fearing the worst.
UNIDENTIFIED PARENT: As a parent, you just, you know it could happen, and our hearts really go out to the parents that, uh, probably have lost one of their children tonight.
STUDENT: You just stop believing in God when stuff like this happens.
MR. HOLMAN: The plane had arrived in New York from Athens, Greece, and was on the ground about three hours before its scheduled 8 PM takeoff. In Paris, after the crash, the arrival board at Charles DeGaulle Airport listed the flight only as canceled. Psychologists, doctors, and nurses were quickly recruited to help console the waiting relatives and friends of the estimated 40 passengers attempting to go home to France.
JEFFREY ERICKSON, President and CEO, TWA: First of all, I want to say that the people of TWA share in the grief of the families of the passengers. We too lost colleagues and friends. This is a personal tragedy for all of us. I do want to extend our many thanks to all of the New Yorkers who have come to the aid of our victims and our families in this search. Our task now is to honor the memory of our lost colleagues by caring for the families and for each other. We intend to carry on in the best tradition of TWA and rededicate ourselves to the highest standards of safety and service, as we have always done.
MR. HOLMAN: A combined federal and state task force, including the FBI and the New York City police, quickly formed to investigate the cause of the crash. Based on the eyewitness accounts from the Air National Guard pilots, investigators reportedly were leaning toward the possibility of a bomb. This morning, President Clinton appeared in the White House briefing room to warn against precipitous conclusions.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Right now, the Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA, and the FBI are on the scene of the crash. As of now, no survivors have been found. Hundreds of rescue personnel rushed to help in pitch dark, lit only by the flames of burning wreckage. And I want to thank them for their brave work in these treacherous waters on behalf of the people who were on that flight. We do not know what caused this tragedy. I want to say that again. We do not know as of this moment what caused this tragedy. We are beginning the painstaking process of piecing together what happened. Additional briefings to provide the latest details of what is being done will be coordinated by the Department of Transportation and will be given to you on a regular basis. We will determine what happened. But for now, I want to caution again the American people against jumping to any conclusions and ask that today overwhelmingly our people remember the families of the people who were on that flight in their prayers.
MR. HOLMAN: Also in Washington, Attorney General Janet Reno elaborated on the FBI's involvement in the investigation.
JANET RENO, Attorney General: Our hearts this morning go out to the families and to the loved ones of those on TWA Flight 800. The FBI is at the scene, working with all other agencies to try to get to the bottom of this terrible tragedy.
REPORTER: Ms. Reno, at this point, is there any indication of criminal cause to this crash?
JANET RENO: We don't have any indication at this point, except that we will pursue with all the other agencies everything necessary to get to the bottom of it.
REPORTER: Can you tell us why the FBI is involved in the investigation, what the mechanism is for their involvement?
JANET RENO: They are on the scene working with other agencies.
SPOKESPERSON: The FBI has assumed leadership of the investigation.
JANET RENO: The FBI in terms of the Joint Terrorism Task Force is under that, the leader, but the important thing is that, that we will work with all the other agencies to ensure that any lead, whatever its origin may be, is followed.
MR. HOLMAN: And at the Pentagon, a spokesman laid out the Defense Department's role.
KEN BACON, Pentagon Spokesman: The NTSB has asked the Navy for the following help: first, divers and support equipment to assist in the recovery of recorders and wreckage. This will include towed pinger locators for helping to find the flight recorders. These are devices that pick up the pinging sounds emitted by the flight recorders--also, hand-held locator units which can be used from boats on the surface to help locate the flight data recorders, and side scan sonar which will help map the underwater debris field, both to give a picture of how the debris settled after the crash which may be--may be useful in determining what happened--but also to help locate pieces of the plane that have settled in the water. A Navy diving and salvage assessment team left National Airport at 12:45 today en route to the scene to determine exactly how many people and what sort of equipment and how much equipment we should devote to this task in assistance to the National Transportation Safety Board. But we stand ready to provide the help that's been requested and any additional help that may be requested in the hours and days ahead.
MR. HOLMAN: This afternoon, the National Transportation Safety Board held a brief news conference on Long Island near the crash site. Vice Chairman Robert Francis said the board has not reached any conclusion about the cause of the crash.
ROBERT FRANCIS, Vice-Chairman, NTSB: The issue of accident versus criminal act is obviously one that's very much out there for the moment. We have no evidence at this point that this was not an accident. So the NTSB, as long as this is considered an accident, will be in charge of the investigation. We are working, as the governor indicated, very closely with the governor, with the Coast Guard, and with the FBI. Should this turn out to be a criminal act, we would then have within the federal agencies a flip of responsibility, whereas, the FBI now is assisting us, they would take over charge of the investigation, and we would become technical assistants and specialist assistants for them. So that's where we stand at the moment on that. We've obviously--I just came back from the scene out there. We've got--there's a lot of wreckage out there on, on one of the Coast Guard buoy tenders. There are enormous numbers of people who are trying to be helpful, sometimes almost too many, but we appreciate it all, and this is at the local level, at the state level, and at the federal level. We are having an organizational meeting tonight at 6 o'clock to get the technical groups together who will be proceeding with the investigation as we traditionally do. And after that, at 9 o'clock tonight, I will come back, and we will talk to you again about any subsequent update that there might be.
REPORTER: In your experience, has there ever been a commercial airliner which suffered a catastrophic explosive failure due to accident like this or remotely like this, so far as you know?
ROBERT FRANCIS: My experience probably isn't great enough to deal with that, so I don't really know.
REPORTER: Have you heard--well, have you ever--in recent years, in NTSB--
ROBERT FRANCIS: I can't.
REPORTER: Can you tell us what led up to the accidents, the events that led up to the accident, what you know, after take-off?
ROBERT FRANCIS: Umm, let me, let me again--this has been kind of a long day, and we've been trying to get organized. I do not have a whole lot of specific data. We'll try to do our best on that tonight.
REPORTER: You said there was a lot of wreckage. How would you characterize and describe that wreckage?
ROBERT FRANCIS: Everything from a very large piece of a wing to, to seats, to panels, to lots of insulation, et cetera.
REPORTER: Where will you be looking? What kind of evidence will you be looking--
MR. HOLMAN: Francis was asked whether investigators ultimately will be able to differentiate between the effects of an accident and some sort of bomb.
ROBERT FRANCIS: I would leave it to the experts and the FBI and the NTSB to answer that, but I think that there certainly are--experts can look at pieces of metal or pieces of wreckage or pieces of cloth and find evidence of the difference between an explosion or not.
REPORTER: Isn't it part of NTSB's mission to look for criminal evidence in this case?
ROBERT FRANCIS: Well, if, if there's evidence of--if we and the FBI decide that this was a criminal act, then they, they are in charge of the investigation. We work with them. Obviously, everybody's got specialists who, who have expertise in lots of areas.
MR. HOLMAN: Meanwhile, the search for victims and wreckage continued over a watery site of some 240 square miles. Investigators reportedly were optimistic Flight 800's voice and data recorders will be recovered.