THE NIGHT THE SEA BURNT

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Over the mirrors meant

To glass the opulent

The sea-worm crawls - grotesque, slimed,

dumb, indifferent.

(from 'The Convergence of the Twain - Lines on the Loss of The Titanic' by Thomas Hardy)

In His 14 years as a police officer on Long Island and five as a diver with the Suffolk County Police Department's Marine Bureau, Vincent Termine has seen his fair share of heartache and tragedy. He has had to pick a woman's liver off the highway after a drunken driver rammed into the side of her car. He has had to go into a house where a family had been burnt to death. He has dived to a sunken yacht and brought up the bodies of two young boys to their distraught father. But all of this pales in comparison to what he would have to face on the night of Wednesday 17 July 1996.

It started calmly enough. Vincent was working the night tour at the Marine Bureau: 5pm to 1am. As he parked his Chevy Blazer outside the two-storey brick building on Great South Bay, on Long Island's southern shore, there was not a cloud in the sky. He reported to the duty officer. All quiet.

It was a good moment to tinker on Romeo, the 25ft Boston Whaler which Vincent and his "dive buddy" Jack Blaum use as their amphibious patrol car. A switch for the forward bilge-pump needed changing. One of the outboard engines was running a bit roughly. When they had finished working on the boat, the two men took it for a run on Great South Bay. Then Jack drove to get a Chinese take-away.

One of the things Vincent hated about being a regular cop was that he was always eating off a clipboard. And though he had already been with the Marine Bureau for nearly five years, he still enjoyed the feeling of being able to sit at the huge cherrywood table in the upstairs lunch-room, and eat a proper meal.

Vincent had just finished his chicken chow mein and was sitting back enjoying the view out over the Fire Island barrier beach to the Atlantic beyond when he saw something in the sky.

"Holy Cow! Look at this sun... !"

He was going to say "sunset", but never finished the sentence. The sun sets in the west, towards New York, and he was looking east. Whatever it was, the huge, orange fireball he had seen on the horizon was not the sun. His first thought was that it might have been an explosion on board a ship and that what he had seen was a plume of flame rising into the sky. But it was too high. And much too large. Though it was a long way away, the fireball had almost filled the plate-glass window. It had to be a plane.

Running into the Operations Room, he called the Bureau's aviation unit, which immediately dispatched a helicopter. Vincent and Jack decided to head out in Romeo. The Marine Bureau has a bigger boat, but Vincent likes the manoeuvrability of the Boston Whaler, a versatile craft used by fishermen and pleasure boaters all along the East Coast. Its two 200hp Mercury engines can propel it across open water at 60mph. By lifting the outboards, it can float up into the shallow creeks and ponds that dot this part of the coast. That night, they had the engines at full throttle.

The marine radio had gone berserk. Boaters were calling the coastguard to report what they had seen. Most of them likened it to a giant flare. As they raced across Great South Bay, Vincent pondered what he had seen. He was pretty sure that it had been a plane crash. But he assumed it was a small plane, like a Cessna. In the summer, the skies above Long Island are full of light aircraft. Then his mobile phone rang. It was the desk officer at the Marine Bureau. She told him that a 747 had exploded.

"That Just hit me like a sledgehammer," Vincent remembered. "I never thought it would be anything on that scale."

We were sitting in the steering cabin of the Boston Whaler on a bright May day 10 months after that terrible night. Vincent still sported the black baseball cap that the Marine Bureau had had made during the TWA recovery operation to help distinguish their unit from the many others who came in to help. Over the silver letters SCPD (Suffolk County Police Department) was the blue-black outline of a scuba diver with yellow flippers. And the events of last July were as fresh in Vincent's mind as if they had happened yesterday.

"Everything starts running through your mind," he said, picking up the narrative. "How many people are on board? What shape are they going to be in? I realise a 747 is going to be further out to sea than a small plane would. Now, the operation becomes much bigger and more difficult. I knew we had a really tough night ahead of us. And we would need all the help we could possibly, possibly muster."

Romeo didn't head straight for the crash site. It was ordered to put in to the coastguard station at East Moriches, the largest of the five coastguard stations along the south shore of Long Island. It was already in a state of high alert as information, and personnel, began to pour in. The explosion had apparently taken place seconds after a controller at JFK had cleared the plane to climb from 13,000ft to 15,000ft. Its position at the time of the explosion was 40 degrees, 38.5 minutes north, and 72 degrees, 36.5 minutes west. Police and emergency medical technicians were arriving. Phones were ringing off the hook. After picking up two other Marine Bureau officers, Glen Wanerker and Keith Magliola, Vincent and Jack headed for the open ocean. On board, they had a fold-up stretcher, basic medical equipment, a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit and the few body bags they routinely carry. They would need many, many more.

Over Millennia, the sea has sculpted the coastline of this part of Long Island into a jigsaw of bays, salt ponds and brackish inlets. Great South Bay, where the Marine Bureau is situated, is separated from the Atlantic by the Fire Island barrier beach: a narrow strip of sand that stretches down the coast for almost 40 miles. To reach the open sea you have to pass through one of two channels. The closest is the Moriches Inlet, a gash in the barrier beach 23 miles to the east. Few fishing boats pass through the Moriches Inlet these days. In recent decades it has become choked with sand. On aerial photographs this shows up as a milky swirl. In bad weather, it is impassable.

One of the few strokes of luck on the night that TWA 800 went down was that the weather was almost perfect: a four- to five-inch swell, winds 10 to 12mph out of the south-west, a steady barometer. But as the Boston Whaler ploughed through the Inlet, the treacherous currents sucking at its hull, Vincent and the rest of the crew saw that the ocean was on fire.

"There was a wall of flame 30ft high," he recalled. "It was like a war zone."

C140 transport planes from the Air National Guard at Westhampton were dropping phosphorous flares, which floated down like parachutes, lighting up the sea for a minute at a time, like flashbulbs from a giant camera. Helicopters hovered above them shining lights on the water. Boats from the coastguard, fishing boats and pleasure craft were converging on the circle of flame. A huge section of the fuselage was still on fire. There was burning jet fuel everywhere. Acrid, black smoke billowed across the water. It was a vision from hell.

"We tried to get close to a piece of burning wreckage at the beginning. I remember operating the boat between flames. But we couldn't get close enough. The smoke was making us sick. One of the guys had to throw up over the side."

It wasn't long before they came upon the first body. It was a young girl. When I asked Vincent to describe her, he sucked in a short breath, like a weightlifter about to seize the bar.

"She was maybe 13 or so. She was intact. As other bodies weren't. She was dressed in black slacks with a white top. She had short, dark hair."

Vincent has a four-year-old daughter and I could feel him struggling to keep his composure.

"She didn't look like she should have been dead," he said. "That's the worst part. Anytime in police work you deal with fatalities, but children are always the hardest. Because they're innocent."

The girl was floating face down in the water. I asked Vincent how that looks.

"Usually, a body floats with just the shoulders exposed and the legs hanging down. The air gets trapped in the upper lungs. Mostly you just see the shoulders and the back of the head. In this case, the hair was matted, because of the jet fuel." I sensed his reluctance to say more, so I asked him to describe how they got the body onto the boat. Procedure is comfortingly free of emotion.

"We manoeuvre the body alongside. Two guys hang over the side, and two others hang on to them to make sure they don't go over. She was easy because she was intact. And fairly light."

I tried to imagine hauling a corpse from the water: the smell of the jet fuel, the cold clammy feel of flesh that is no longer alive. As I did I realised that I would not have been able to do it. I would have been gagging and crying. I would have been useless. That night even Vinnie's stoicism in the face of death was tested to the limit, as a mounting sense of horror and helplessness chipped away at his professionalism.

When they got the girl onto the back of the boat, the four men stood in silence for some time.

"I know everybody was thinking to themselves: a child. Why do we have to start this way?"

They put the girl in a body bag.

"Routinely, you carry only a few bags. And, we soon ran out. But we did bag the first few victims."

I remembered the cold, harsh sound of a body-bag zipper from old war movies. "Yeah. And you know what happens? Everyone just kind of looks around and nothing is said, but everyone is hoping that someone else is going to close it up."

When a plane explodes there is an enormous, and immediate, rise in pressure in the cabin. The effect of the blast wave on the passengers has been compared to being hit with a giant fly- swatter. If the blast is big enough, it will kill most passengers outright. Usually, it will not. Forensic pathology reports detail the numerous, and terrible, injuries sustained by passengers (the most common are fatal head injuries caused when the aircraft's seats, with their occupants strapped into them, are torn loose from the floor). But there is a powerful taboo about making such knowledge available to the general public. The reason given for this is that it would be insensitive to the feelings of the victims' families. The real reason is that the airline companies do not want us to know.

The most taboo question is whether, in the moments after an explosion, the passengers "suffer" or not. We watch documentaries detailing the protracted sufferings of Allied prisoners in the camps of Burma during the Second World War. But when it comes to air disasters, we prefer to cling to the illusion that, after an explosion of this kind, death is instantaneous. It is not. When the space shuttle exploded over the Atlantic, it was at first claimed that the crew died immediately. Only later was it admitted that at least two of them were alive, and conscious, as they plummeted 100,000ft towards the ocean. Investigators knew this because the crew members pulled the buttons controlling their emergency oxygen supplies long after Challenger disintegrated.

Boeings are built in three sections: the forward fuselage, the centre fuselage and the aft fuselage. When TWA 800 exploded, the plane immediately broke in two. The front fuselage, the cockpit and Business Class sections immediately plummeted downwards, while the back of the plane, buoyed up by the wings and the tail, flew on for several seconds, its front open to the skies, the wind howling through it like a tunnel, until it, too, plunged into the sea. We know this because the track of debris strewn along the flight path was nearly 20 miles long. An object falling from the sky travels at between 100mph and 150mph. This means that, from a height of 13,000ft, it could take as much as a minute for the plane, and its passengers, to hit the water. Anyone who has been on the Tower of Terror at Disneyworld knows what a gut-wrenching, heart-stopping feeling it is to freefall even 40 feet. Some passengers will have been killed instantaneously by the explosion. Many, if not most, of the passengers were still alive as the plane fell from the sky. The most we can hope is that the immense G-forces exerted on them as they spun through the air may have rendered them unconscious.

To imagine what happens when a person hits the water from that height, you only have to remember one of those school swimming galas when, to give the occasion a jolt of humour, the lifeguards would dress up in baggy clothes, stuff a pillow down their fronts, and do a bellyflop off the high board. Hitting the water at 100mph, from 13,000ft, is like hitting a concrete floor (drivers knocked out of racing boats travelling at 150mph rarely survive). Death is immediate, and traumatic. Limbs are severed. Clothes burst open and are stripped off. Which is why nearly all the victims Vincent recovered on that first night were naked.

He Was in charge of steering the boat. As well as the piles of floating debris, there were so many bodies, and parts of bodies, that he had to cut Romeo's speed to just five knots to avoid snagging them with the propeller. The victims showed up as a distortion on the surface of the water. Sometimes, the distortion turned out to be debris. More often than not it was a body. Most of the bodies recovered that first night, almost two thirds of them, were women. Their breasts act as flotation devices and they tend to have more body fat.

To describe the bodies Vincent resorted to the neutral language of a police report. Those in good condition he called "intact". The rest he referred to as "damaged" or "very damaged".

"We recovered some people that were in half at the torso, people that were missing limbs, or a part of their heads. We recovered limbs alone. Part of a leg - the foot and the calf floating on the surface. Every imaginable configuration."

But it was not only rescuers who were out on the burning sea that night. As a group of coastguards hauled a corpse from the water, a snappily dressed blonde pulled alongside in a boat and pointed a boom-microphone at them. "Excuse me," she said, shining a blinding searchlight on the men. "Would you mind answering some questions?" It was a reporter from Long Island's Channel 12 TV. "We want to get the human side of this," she continued. "We want to know how you feel. Can you tell us how you feel?"

"I feel like you should turn those lights off and help us," a rescuer told her gruffly. "Or get the hell out of here."

Many of the bodies had what looked like tiny, sparkling lights on them. It wasn't phosphorescence: but no one could work out what it was. Vincent thought that it might have been the interior lining of the bulkheads. Only the next day did they learn that, among other cargo, TWA 800 was carrying 800lb of theatrical glitter for export to Paris. When the plane exploded, the glitter had showered down from the sky, like snow, settling on the sea and the wreckage and coating the bodies with a film of shimmering light. It was beautiful, and strange. It stuck to Vincent's hands, and to his clothes. As the flares burst overhead, it sparkled and shone in the water like diamonds.

Cops the world over are famous for their gallows humour. It's one way of coping with the job. But that night Vincent and his three colleagues worked grimly, and silently, maneouvering the boat from victim to victim, bringing them on board, laying them on the deck, off-loading them onto one of the coastguard boats. It was like some grotesque, nocturnal fishing expedition. If they talked at all, it was to say things like: "I see something off the port bow." Or: "Swing that light round to the back." Or: "Careful with that piece of wreckage." Most of the time, each man was alone with his thoughts.

"I would look over the clothing," Vincent recalled. "Like with the TWA officer we found. I wondered if he had a wife, or children. With the child, I remember thinking: I bet she has a sister or a brother. Probably she wasn't travelling alone. Where were her parents? Was it her first flight?"

Another question kept going through his mind: who could have done such a thing?

It was hot, exhausting work. Vincent and the crew on Romeo had been breathing in the acrid smoke. Everyone was thirsty but they had neither food nor drink on board. When a civilian boat brought over a bottle of mineral water, they gulped it down with gratitude.

Despite the evidence mounting up on the back of the boat, Vincent tenaciously clung to the hope that they might still find survivors. It made the task bearable. "I am an optimist by nature and I think I probably held on to the hope of finding someone alive the longest. Sometimes, we'd bring in a victim and one of the other people on board would say: no one could have survived this. And I would say: you don't know that, the waters are warm, maybe someone has survived."

He can't remember when that hope finally died in him. But eventually, the little deck at the back of the Boston Whaler was piled with corpses and parts of corpses. Only the first two had been bagged. There was blood everywhere. In all, Vincent and his colleagues recovered 28 bodies. They were of all different ages. All of them were white.

At 6am, as the sun rose over the sea, Vincent called his wife. "The sea was calm and peaceful. It was very tranquil. And then I remembered the rest of my life: that my wife was going to be getting up soon and I needed to be home to mind our daughter, because she was about to go to work."

He got on the radio and requested to be released. He was given permission and swung the boat back towards the Moriches Inlet. A cortege of other boats moved back and forwards from the shore, carrying the terrible cargo of dead. A mangled chunk of the wing stuck up out of the water, like a tombstone.

When he got back to the shore, Vincent was covered in soot from the burning jet fuel. His hands and clothes were caked with blood. He had pieces of flesh sticking to the bottom of his sneakers, and his trousers. He was driven in an unmarked police car back to the Marine Bureau. He showered, put the soiled clothes into a garbage bag and threw them away. Then he drove to the grocery store where his wife works as an accountant. He hugged her, then picked his daughter up in his arms.

"I remember thinking: I'm so lucky to have my family still."

RAPTURES OF THE DEEP

There Is a town called Termine not far from Palermo in Sicily, and, though Vincent has never traced back his family tree, it is from here that he assumes that his family came. His great-grandfather was certainly born in Palermo, emigrating in the 1890s to New York, where he opened a bakery. Vincent's father was the first member of the family to leave New York, coming to Ronkonkoma, in what is called "mid-island", as part of the flight to the suburbs that took place in the Sixties.

Like most immigrants at that time, he was determined to become assimilated. Italian was never spoken at home. The name was pronounced Ter-mine not Ter-min-ay as it would be in Italy. The family quickly acquired a strong local accent. Vincent pronounced "huge" as "youdge". "Long Island" comes out as "Lawng Gisland". The family remained Catholic. Among the suburban communities that mushroomed out either side of the Long Island Expressway, being a cop was, and is, one of the most sought-after jobs there is. It offers security, benefits like medical insurance, and the highest salary of any police force in America. A veteran Suffolk County police officer can earn $100,000 a year. And even though Vincent has a degree in sociology and another in criminal science, joining the police force was the non plus ultra of his ambitions. "When I took the test, there were probably 20,000 people taking it at the same time. I probably took 35 different police tests, in and around the area, then out-of-state, in Connecticut and New Jersey. "

Like most Long Islanders, he was never far from the ocean. "I grew up on the water. My grandfather taught me to fish when I was seven or eight. I had my first boat when I was 13. I went clamming as a kid, did snorkelling and scuba diving, surfing, water-skiing." He was also a devoted fan of Sea Hunt, an old black-and-white television series about a scuba diver, played by Jeff Bridges Snr. "I used to watch that show every week. And I remember thinking over and over: that's what I want to do one day." After five years working the 5th Precinct as a patrol officer, his childhood dream came true. He joined the Marine Bureau.

The Marine Bureau is situated on Great South Bay at the back of the Timber Point golf course on what used to be one of the biggest private estates on Long Island. In the 1700s, Great South Bay contained the largest oyster beds in the New World. The men who worked them became known as Baymen. Later, potato farming, mostly by Polish immigrants, replaced the fishing. Now, both are almost gone. But the feeling for the sea remains as strong as ever.

Like its location, the Marine Bureau has always been something of a world apart. Its most famous commander was known in Suffolk County as a Jack Kerouac figure who wrote poetry and loved the job because of the contact it gave him with the ocean and the time it gave him for literature. He claimed to be able to read 100 books every winter.

Cops in America usually have to wear ties and dark trousers. The fact that Vinnie, as he is known to his friends, is allowed to wear blue jeans, an open-neck blue shirt and a dark-blue cotton jacket to work is one of the many things he likes about his job, like eating at a table. On the left breast of his jacket there is a round patch embroidered with the international symbol for scuba diving: a red flag crossed with two white diagonals.

Though he does a dangerous job, there is nothing Harrison Ford-like about Vinnie. He is slightly built, standing only 5ft 7in tall, with black hair thinning on top, a bushy moustache and pensive, dark eyes that hold you with a steady gaze. His soft, round face has a gentleness and tranquillity about it - as though frequent immersion in that most female of elements, water, had affected not only his physiognomy, but his character too.

Much of the work at the Marine Bureau is mundane: patrolling the Fire Island barrier beach for burglaries, or driving up and down in a 4WD looking for "clam pirates" - people who harvest clams illegally - usually at night. Occasionally there is a boat theft or a case of drug smuggling.

When he has to dive, he nearly always works with Jack Blaum, the big, ruddy-faced man who went out with him on the night of the crash. Divers always have a dive buddy. The relationship is a special one with its own particular kind of comradeship, even among recreational divers. Dive buddies share the highlights of a dive. They also have to be ready to save each other's lives.

Most of the 160 dives they do each year are for training or to recover evidence: a diamond necklace thrown from a bridge during a car chase, a cosh tossed into the water after a robbery. No gold doubloons. And rarely corpses - though, by chance, they had retrieved one the day before Vincent and I met.

"We got a call saying that there was a body lying in a foot and a half of water. It was a woman from further up the island. We don't know too much more than that."

As he spoke, I felt the boat rock on its moorings. Water sloshed against the hull. Gulls cried overhead. I asked Vincent whether, despite all his experience, there isn't some part of him that flinches every time he has to recover a body.

"It's never routine," he said, thoughtfully. "But we've done it enough times to be able to do what we have to do. We're comfortable enough with it to get the job done."

But a body has a face and a story. How does it feel to turn a body over in the water?

Vincent bit his lower lip.

"It makes it very real. First, you're looking at the back, a black jacket. It could be a mannequin. But when you see the face, it has an identity."

I ask him what he remembers about the woman's face.

"I thought that she was younger, maybe in her late thirties. She was slim but her face appeared to be weathered, almost like a fisherman's face."

Like all cops, Vincent has his feelings pretty well "squared away" but I always knew when he found something upsetting because he would look away a lot, his voice would go quieter, and he would swallow repeatedly. He was doing it now. "Here are Jack and I, leaning over the side, having the same kinds of conversation: alright, you grab this, you grab that, careful you don't fall. It flashed me right back. We did that same act and that same conversation so many times that night. We looked at each other and we were both thinking: here we go again. And then one of us said it: haven't we had our share of this?"

I Knew it was going to be hard for Vincent to talk about what he went through during the TWA 800 recovery operation. So I had intentionally brought only one tape the first time we met. If he was going to tell me his story he would have to feel comfortable, and trust me. As I drove home to East Hampton that day I realised that talking about the woman he had recovered the day before had been a rehearsal for us both. Vincent could see that I did not simply have a morbid curiosity in the difficult and disturbing things he had to tell me. I was testing his limits, to see how far he could go. We were like dive buddies, getting used to each other before descending further into the deep.

We met for the second time at the Marine Bureau a few days later. I suggested sitting in the boat again but there was a cool wind blowing, and Vincent said he would prefer to go up to the lunch-room.

"This is where I was sitting when I saw the fireball," he said, as we settled either side of a huge cherrywood table. It had been built by two of the Marine Bureau's officers with driftwood from Hurricane Gloria, which had pounded this part of Long Island in 1985. In the centre of it, they had carved a large anchor in relief, decorated it with sand and shells, then covered the whole thing with half an inch of marine fibreglass resin. It was like one of those heraldic devices that medieval knights had emblazoned on their shields.

"That's the window I was looking through when I saw the plane exploded."

Seeing it made his description of the size of the fireball come home to me. The window was 4ft square, but even though TWA 800 exploded more than 30 miles away, it had almost filled it.

I Was On another island, further up the coast, when the plane crashed. I had gone to Nantucket to do a travel story. When I got back to my hotel on the night of the crash, I found two members of the hotel staff, a man and a woman from Jamaica, huddled round the television. The plane was still burning in the water. I remember the Jamaican woman kept saying: "My God, my God."

Though the crash site was 12 miles to the west of my home in East Hampton, when I got there two days later the ocean had already begun to wash up debris from the plane: food trays, life vests, bits of luggage. In the Hamptons, New York's high-society summer resort, the season was in full swing. The roads were crammed with Wall Street brokers in Land Rovers and anorexic women in little black dresses. On the beaches, millionaire hunks and babes in DKNY bikinis checked out each other's assets (the Hamptons version of falling in love). There was polo and tennis, and that favourite of all Hamptons sports: celebrity spotting. Spielberg was in town. So was Streisand. Baldwin and Basinger were away. But who cared? Sting had paid a quarter of a million dollars to rent a house for three months.

The possibility that swollen corpses might soon be bobbing up in the surf cast a pall over all this fin de siecle frivolity. Instead of planes towing banners advertising Bacardi, Navy choppers clattered overhead. Instead of big-band jazz, my local radio station ran ominous announcements urging us to call the police if we found anything on the beach. Humvee APVs drove up and down the sand. Armed National Guardsmen in battle fatigues threaded their way between the sunbathers. FBI agents in shiny suits combed the real-estate offices searching for suspicious renters. Sting was quickly eliminated as a suspect.

The East End of Long Island is no stranger to disasters. Old timers still remember the hurricane of '38, which decimated the region with considerable loss of life. And long before it became the flight path to Europe from New York, it was on the main shipping route. Numerous ships ran aground, particularly on the Fire Island Beach Barrier: like the Savannah, a 35- ton sailing ship which broke up in heavy seas on 5 November 1821, a few miles west of TWA 800; or the steamer Lexington, which caught fire off Long Island on 13 January 1840, immolating 146 men, women and children. Even today, many older Long Island homes have timbers or fittings salvaged by "wreckers" from these disasters. More recently, with two of the busiest airports in America lying only 20 miles from each other, there have been plane crashes. In 1992, an Avianca jet from Colombia ploughed into a field near La Guardia, New York's second airport. But there had never been anything to compare with TWA 800.

Even locating and plotting the debris field was a major undertaking. The plotting was done by NAVSEA (Naval Sea Systems Command). Working round the clock for the first four days after the crash, three Navy ships, the Noah, the Rude and the Pirouette, sailed up and down the five square miles of ocean that had been cordoned off, towing side-scan sonar traducers, small fish-shaped devices, behind them. It was like mowing the lawn. And though the victims' families bitterly complained at what, to them, seemed like an unjustifiable delay, it was essential for the long-term success of the recovery operation that the plotting be done slowly and methodically.

Experienced sonar operators can "read" the signals being returned from the ocean floor. They can tell the difference between a signal produced by a "soft" contact, like a field of seaweed, and a "hard" contact, like an oil-drum. But TWA 800 had gone down in some of the most extensive clam beds on the East Coast, and the sonar operators often had trouble distinguishing between these and wreckage from the plane. To solve the problem, the Navy hired a private contractor, Oceaneering International, to photograph the sea bed with a powerful laser camera which had been developed in the Cold War to take pictures of Soviet submarines. It could not only give a crisp image of a sneaker lying on the bottom: it could tell you whether it was an Adidas or a Nike. ROVs (Robot-Operated Vehicles) were also lowered to the bottom to take photos. All this information was fed into a computer at NAVSEA's hastily assembled office at the Moriches coastguard station. By the end of the first weekend a rough map of the crash site had begun to emerge. Sea-weed, clam or scallop beds were designated "biologicals". Plane wreckage was logged as "hard contacts". "Soft contacts" were things like luggage, washbags, clothes. Or corpses.

The Overwhelming priority in the first days of the operation was the location and recovery of victims. As well as two groups of Navy divers - scuba divers from EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) and hard-hat divers from SUPSALV - there were divers from the NYPD, the New York State Police, the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). In all there were 180, of which less than half a dozen were women. Vincent was one of nine scuba divers from the Suffolk County Police's Marine Bureau.

"On our first dive Jack and I descended to what we soon realised was part of the First Class section of the plane," he recalled. "I remember seeing cloth napkins, which told me it was First Class. It was good visibility that day: 20 to 30ft. We dropped down ... into just a tangle, a mess of wreckage. If you didn't already know it was a plane, you'd think you had landed in a junk yard. It was jagged metal, electrical cables, and sheets of aluminium, all twisted and mangled and torn in a huge pile. Only the seats told you it was a plane. They were strewn all over the place."

The plane was lying in 125 to 135ft of water. This part of the Atlantic is constantly dragged by scallop boats, so the ocean floor was mostly flat, and featureless. Occasionally, there was a ripple effect, like miniature sand dunes. There was little plant life. Instead, there was an amazing jumble of personal possessions: passports, letters, newspapers, neatly folded clothes. One diver found a sheet of music by Marcel Dadi, a French guitarist who was en route back to Paris after being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Everywhere, there were bottles of cologne and toiletries. But what Vincent most remembers from his first dive was the child's sneaker he found under a piece of wreckage.

Swimming around the wreckage of the 747 was difficult and dangerous, especially because of the cables and wires on board which spewed out of all sides like piano wire. "Entanglements are a major factor. If you've got plenty of air, you've got time to cut yourself out. But if your air is limited it gets difficult. You're working against the clock. And at that time we were only using one tank. So we didn't have a big margin of error."

Knowing that it would be in for the long haul, and in order to minimise the potential risks, the Navy had decided early on that only a small number of divers, the hard-hat divers who worked on the densest debris field, would use decompression chambers. They would stay down for an hour. Scuba divers like Vinnie were to roam the perimeters of the debris field and limit the duration of their dives to 15 minutes.

It was pushing the envelope, anyway. According to the Navy's own decompression tables the maximum bottom-time at 130ft is actually 10 minutes. But because the plane was lying at depths that varied from 120 to 130ft, the Navy decided that it could allow the divers to stay down for 15. Five minutes could make all the difference. It could also be extremely dangerous.

Narcosis or "rapture of the deep" results from the increased intake of nitrogen the deeper a diver goes. Some divers may experience it at 50 or 70ft. All divers will be affected at 250ft. Symptoms include a feeling of euphoria often likened to smoking a joint. Your ability to make rational decisions is greatly impaired. Some divers also experience a loss of manual dexterity, and numbness of the tongue and lips.

"I think I had narcosis once during the TWA operation," said Vincent. "I remember looking at my gauges and then not knowing why I was looking at them. It's like that feeling when you walk into the kitchen then stand there wondering why you came in."

The day began with a briefing by a lieutenant commander from the Navy in a tent at the back of the Moriches coastguard station. His radio tag was "Zipgun". Vincent compared Zipgun's briefings with a football coach giving the team a pep-talk in the locker-room before the big game. He would congratulate teams that had made important finds, but remind those that had come up empty the day before that they had, none the less, performed a vital task. They had eliminated another target. Finally, Zipgun would allocate the new targets for that day, chosen from the thousands of sites that had been identified by the sonar ships and laser cameras. Navy EOD divers then dropped buoys into the sea using high-powered military GPS units that can pinpoint a spot on the ocean smaller than a coffee table.

It took about one hour to reach the crash site from the coastguard station at Moriches. On the way out, Vinnie and his dive partner would discuss that day's dive in great detail. With them travelled two emergency medical technicians, a team of eight to 10 FBI divers and two FBI agents whose job it was to oversee the "chain of evidence". Everything the divers brought up had to be tagged and logged in the event that there was a trial. Having located their "target", Vincent would jump feet-first off the back of the boat.

The moment a diver's mask dips below the surface, he enters a different world: a world where the normal laws - of gravity, respiration and sight - do not apply. The late Jacques Cousteau said that to dive is to reverse "the divine moment of evolution" when man "crawled ashore, stopped breathing water, and survived in air".

The first thing that changes is the breathing. From an irregular flux between nose and mouth, breathing changes to short, purposeful intakes terminated by the snapping shut of a diaphragm. Breathing underwater tends to be shallower, more regular, calmer. Some divers claim to experience a sense of almost yogic calm. Nearly all divers compare the feeling of diving to flying. There is the same sense of weightlessness, the same freedom.

The time it took the divers to reach the bottom was critical. To avoid bacterial contamination, Vincent normally wears a thick, full-body dive suit and a bulky, full-face mask. But because every second counted, he used a lighter, two-piece wet-suit known as a "Farmer John", because of its resemblance to a farmer's overalls; and a low-volume, lightweight mask. With less air trapped in the mask, he could get to the bottom faster.

Most recreational divers descend gradually, pausing to clear their sinuses. If they don't, they can rupture their ear drums. By adding weights and clearing their sinuses as they went down, Vincent and the other divers managed to shave many seconds off their descent time. "We were heading for the bottom like rocks, kicking our way down. I was going down faster than I ever have. At first, it was taking us nearly two minutes. But eventually, I was reaching the bottom in less than a minute." Vincent was always the first into the water, following the tether of the buoy that the Navy had dropped down into the depths. Light is absorbed at great speed by the water (at 75ft it is less than 10 per cent of what it is at the surface) and as he descended there was a steady draining of colour, as if the control on a television was being slowly turned to black and white.

At the bottom, it was cold, between 39 and 43F, and often dark. On overcast days, Vincent was descending into almost total darkness for the last 30 or 40ft. It was an eerie, twilight world with no contours or landmarks to tell him where he was and no company except the beating of his own heart. Only when the anchor at the bottom of the buoy's tether came into view did he know he was reaching the bottom. On the worst days, he would press his gauges to his mask and see nothing.

Luckily, he had other ways of seeing. In his right hand, he carried a sophisticated sonar gun: a small, plastic device, about the size of a roll of kitchen towel, connected to a set of headphones. As soon as he got to the bottom, Vincent would kneel on the sand and scan the area around him for bodies. "You know that pinging sound in submarine movies? It was like that. You would get a return and you learned to distinguish when it hit different targets, from the pitch or duration of the tone. If you hit a large metal object, the pitch would go up, and the frequency would be faster. The closer you got the more frequent the ping got. I found a shoe 70ft away using this gadget. When they had located something, Vincent and Jack would swim out to retrieve it. To prevent them getting lost, and possibly running out of air, they both carried what is called a wreck- reel, a spool loaded with 250ft of thin nylon rope, with a hook at the end of it. Before swimming out to retrieve a body, Vincent would attach the hook to the buoy's anchor. Jack would swim beside him. If they needed to go out further, Vincent would tie on the other wreck-reel, extending their range to 500ft. "It's like Hansel and Gretel and the breadcrumbs," said Vincent. "It's how you find your way home."

THE MANAGEMENT OF GRIEF

As Vincent silently spooled out his wreck-reel at the bottom of the ocean, on land the Moriches coastguard station was swarming with people and vehicles. Before the crash Moriches was a place few Americans could find on a map. Within 24 hours it was as famous as Waco. Television crews and vans jostled for space in "Satellite City'', the media village that had sprung up on a stretch of waste ground at the entrance. There were Red Cross workers, emergency medical technicians and armed agents from the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. Computers from SUPSALV and NAVSEA were installed in temporary offices. Dolphin and Sea Knight helicopters clattered overhead. An armada of naval vessels plied to and from the crash site. As well as the three sonar ships, there was a 225ft buoy tender with a crane that could pick up 20 tons of debris. There were flat-bottomed salvage barges known as "Mike" boats and two specially equipped salvage boats - the Grasp and the Grapple.

Security was intense. But even then, David L Williams, a 30-year-old Jamaican doctor with a history of mental illness, managed to do what only Tony Curtis, in The Great Impostor, had achieved before. Using a forged pass and dressed in a fake military flightsuit, he smuggled his way into the coastguard station and spent two-and-a-half days directing traffic on the newly built helipad. Two of the helicopters he guided safely to earth were carrying the Governor of New York State, George Pataki, and the head of the FBI team, Jim Kalstrom.

Forty miles to the west, at the Ramada Plaza Hotel, some of the victims' families were giving grief a bad name. The idea of putting up the families for an extended period near the site of a plane crash is a new one. The first time it had been done was after US Air 427 crashed in Pennsylvania in 1994. The relatives expected to be accommodated as near as possible to the coroner's office, in this case in the town of Hauppauge. Instead, they were billeted an hour-and-a-half's drive away at the Ramada and two other hotels at JFK. The families accused TWA of being cheapskates. The Ramada was cheaper than the Sheraton near Hauppauge. TWA maintains that due to the lack of sufficient hotel space in Suffolk County, the three hotels at JFK were "the best and most appropriate" accommodation in the circumstances.

The atmosphere in the hotel was like a pressure cooker waiting to explode. After an earthquake in Mexico, the authorities simply had to plough the bodies back into the earth. When an Air India 747 was downed off the coast of Ireland by Sikh militants neither the Indian nor the Irish governments could do much except fly family members to the coast of Donegal to look out at the sea. Here on Long Island, the biggest salvage and recovery operation ever mounted was underway: 2,000 people from 40 government agencies were assembled. Sixty local dentists offered to work for free identifying victims from dental records. Hundreds of other volunteers worked round the clock.

But the "gimme" ethic was playing havoc with the dignity of the victims' families. In America, you order pizza, and the pizza arrives. You pick up the phone, the phone works. The families wanted the bodies of their loved ones, and they wanted them now. As representatives from the NTSB, the FBI, the Navy and the Medical Examiner's Office briefed them for the first time on Friday evening, in the hotel's ballroom, they were vilified as liars and incompetents.

Some family members, horrified by what they saw on television, stayed away from the hotel altogether. Some, like 76-year-old Leonard Romagna, who lost his wife on the plane, left in disgust, describing what he had seen at the hotel as "emotional self-abuse". Tensions that mirrored larger, geo-political schisms quickly erupted as well. The French and Italian families demanded translations. But when the interpreters arrived on Sunday, an acrimonious row broke out between the Americans, the Italians and the French about which briefing should be read first. Spokespeople for each national group emerged. Angry, resentful press conferences were held on the steps of the hotel. Kvetcher-in-chief was, perhaps not surprisingly, a Brooklyn judge. To some of the victims' families, he was a hero.

There were also intense rivalries between the city and the country. "The Fonz", as New Yorkers call Senator Alphone D'Amato, blasted the Suffolk County Medical Examiner's Office for inefficiency and delays. Dr Charles Wetli, the man in charge of performing the autopsies in Hauppauge, was singled out for especially vehement criticism for refusing to allow some of the victims' families to see the bodies of their loved ones. "You might accuse me of playing God," he told a reporter. "But I think I am playing physician. I think it's more important family members remember their loved ones as they last saw them getting on the plane as opposed to the way I saw them."

IT HAS become a tenet of experts on the grieving process, like Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross, that for what Freud called "the work of mourning" to begin, it is essential that the next of kin see, and even touch, the body of their loved one, even if it is badly mangled or only partially recoverable. This, says the theory, is especially true if they have died a sudden death. The power of denial is strong. The wife of a victim of the Lockerbie crash clung to the belief that her husband might have jumped out of the plane before it exploded.

Studies have also shown that people who lose a loved one in a sudden accident are most likely to experience long-term psychological effects. Queen Victoria, whose 40-year bereavement after her beloved Albert's death used to be cited as an example of the enduring power of love, is these days held up as a model of unsatisfactory grieving. We did not experience "closure".

Vincent and the other divers were the ones who had to go down into the underworld so that the work of mourning could begin. There had been terrible losses: like the 16 teenage members of the Montoursville High School French Club, who were on their way from Pennsylvania to Europe for a cultural tour of France and Switzerland; or the Silverman family - mother, father, daughter and son - who were all killed in the First Class section of the plane. And Vincent was keenly aware of the families' grief.

"That was a major motivation. An incentive to do the very best you could for them, all the time. And I kept thinking in the back of my mind what it must have been like for them. What it must have been like to lose one, or maybe several, loved ones in one fell swoop."

Did he resent the anger and frustration of the victims' families? "I couldn't possibly feel upset with them for feeling angry. I know they were upset that dive operations didn't get started quickly enough. I was just upset that they couldn't understand what was going on. Why it was taking so long."

The answer to that question lay, along with the plane, at the bottom of the sea.

GASTROPODS AND PELAGICS

From My window in East Hampton, when the wind is from the south or a storm is in, I can hear a steady roar beyond the trees. The sea is part of my daily life. I walk my dog on the beach. I jog along the tide-line. Like many people who live here, I sometimes just drive down to have a look at it, staring out through the windscreen as I eat a sandwich or read the paper.

The ocean has many moods. Body-surfing on an Indian-summer day in September can be one of the most delicious things in the world. But when a nor'easter blows, or a hurricane howls up from Florida, the sea can be savage and awe-inspiring, with 15ft waves, a powerful undertow and "sea pusses", treacherous currents that can suck the strongest swimmer out to sea. Almost every summer two or three people are drowned. I was nearly one of them three years ago.

No one who has witnessed a shoal of sprats hurling themselves out of the water onto the sand on a summer evening as a phalanx of bluefish scythes through the surf has any illusions about the grim, Darwinian world that lies beneath the surface of the waves. Some years ago, a well-known local architect walked into the sea and never returned. His hip bone washed up six weeks later.

In a place that was the source for Jaws - Peter Benchley, a frequent visitor to the East End of Long Island, based his gnarled sea captain on Frank Mundus, a well-known shark fisherman from Montauk - it was not surprising that everyone's first thought, as the plane went down, was: sharks. Few were sighted.

"We saw two sharks from our boat," Vincent recalled. "One was a hammerhead, the others we could not identify. Another time, a boat came over the radio and said they had spotted a shark."

In a description of recovering corpses from a shipwreck off the coast of Spain in 1957, an American diver described roping bodies together at the bottom of the sea. When he went to swim forward, this chain of corpses, made buoyant in the water, rose from the sand and, their arms and legs flailing about as they were towed along behind him, performed a danse macabre. Things are done with more dignity these days. But the business of retrieving bodies from the ocean is still a difficult, upsetting task.

Vincent carried with him nylon body bags, for "intact" corpses, and a lobster bag, a long nylon bag used by fishermen, for body parts. If it was an intact body, the first thing he and Jack had to do was unroll the body bag on the sea-floor next to the body. Sometimes, it took several attempts as the body bag acted like a sail in the water and was not easy to lay flat. Once it was lying open on the bottom, the divers had to manoeuvre the body inside. The comparative buoyancy helped. "One hundred and fifty pounds doesn't feel like 150lbs," Vincent explained. "They seem to weigh less."

But the green fog in which the divers were working made it hard to do intricate things like close the zipper on the body bag. They were also under enormous time pressure. Several times, they had to give up the body bag and swim the corpse to the surface, holding it against their chests as they ascended towards the blue light.

The bodies were brought to a temporary morgue which had been set up in the boat bays of the Moriches coastguard station. This is where they were first examined, once by a Suffolk County Medical Examiner, once by a homicide detective and once by an FBI agent. Sometimes an identification could be made immediately: from jewellery, or a photograph. But most of the bodies were so disfigured that they could only be identified after dental examinations had been performed at the Medical Examiner's Office, in Happaugue. One corpse could only be identified as female because of the long braid of hair hanging from the back of her skull. A fleet of refrigerated trucks was rented from the private sector to transport the bodies to Happaugue. Most of them had previously carried frozen food.

Many of the bodies Vincent brought from the ocean floor were not intact. Clouds of flesh particles floated above them. Vincent compared it to a piece of chicken in a soup pot. I asked him if finding these human remains was the most upsetting thing for him. He paused and looked out of the window towards the Atlantic. He began a sentence, then fizzled out.

"There was hope there, too," he finally said. "Because if you can find another piece of the puzzle, that will solve this question for the family somewhere. That was a good day's work."

When I asked him whether he had actually seen fish feeding on human remains, he tried to fudge the question by saying that it was hard to distinguish between injuries from the explosion and damage inflicted by marine life. Then his voice dropped.

"I did see victims who had been..." He paused, searching for the least offensive word. "Bothered."

Bothered?

"There was one I remember," he continued. "We were alongside a Navy ship. Myself and another member of the team went down. The victim was easy to find, as it had been located by an ROV and the ROV was still sitting there. All we had to do was follow the tether down."

About 20ft from the bottom, the divers made out a white patch on the sand. It was a woman in a light-coloured blouse. She was fully clothed, and lying on her back. She had been in the water for two weeks. The divers moved closer, their bubbles rising in clouds. When they were about 8ft away, they saw that the woman was covered in rock crabs. They were on her wrists, on her hands, all over her face.

I asked him what his first reaction was. Revulsion? Fear? Anger?

"Not anger, no. It's more like: oh God, there's one extra obstacle here."

The first thing Vincent and Jack had to do was clear the crabs away. This meant exposing a human face - one that was very pale, and had no eyes.

"It's common, in the past, when we've recovered bodies," Vincent explained, sensing my shock. "A lot of times the eyes are missing. But we did what we had to do. Cleared the crabs away. We tried to bag her, but the zipper broke. That was another added obstacle. We had to nurse the zipper down ... then ... "

Vincent's voice trailed off. He was extremely sensitive to the feelings of the victims' families and I could sense that he felt he was betraying them. He intertwined his fingers, stroking them as though to reassure himself. His face filled with sadness. After the crash the newshounds had tried to elicit macabre stories like these from Vincent and the other divers and, as I pressed him for details, I wondered if I was any better than them. Yet I felt it was my duty to do what Gabriel Garcia Marquez once defined as the true work of a journalist: to tell "the real story, such as it occurred in real life, so that the reader can learn it as if he or she had been present when it took place". However shocking the story might be.

But when I asked Vincent to describe more exactly what he had seen, he reacted, for the first time, with a hint of anger.

"I can describe it, but this is something I wouldn't want a family member to read. It's not the kind of picture I would like to paint for any of them."

Sandy Shamway, a professor of Marine Science at Southampton College, a dozen miles from the crash site, had no such qualms. "Those are dead bodies and animals need dinner," she told me, as we sat in her basement office. "That's how I see it as a scientist."

A short, live-wire of a woman with cropped hair and hazel eyes, she was clearly immersed in her subject. Every inch of her office was crammed with wall charts, posters, books and what she called "20 years' worth of toys": a plastic lobster, a water pistol shaped like a fish, two white plush seals. A bumper sticker on one of the filing cabinets read: "I brake for algae."

I asked her to describe the sequence of marine events triggered by a plane crash in the sea.

"This is a typical littoral environment," she said, opening a copy of The Marine Animals of Southern New England and New York. The pelagics would arrive first. Things like cunners and black fish, blue fish, stripers (striped bass). They live in the water column. You might have some Caribbean migrants, too. The Gulf Stream swings right past Long Island in the summer. There are sharks here too, of course. Blue sharks and maco sharks; the occasional great white. And they have very powerful chemo-receptors. The noise of the crash would probably have attracted them."

She pointed to a diagram of Lophus americanus, also known as the goose fish, a gross-looking creature that grows up to 39in long. It looked like a distended sock with a barbed mouth that resembled one of those attachments you put on a vacuum cleaner to get into the corners of the sofa.

"At 130ft, you've got chaps like that and other bottom fish: skates, flounder, toad fish. You've also got the benthic invertebrates, like lobsters, and the carnivorous gastropods."

She flipped the pages looking for a carnivorous gastropod. "Here we are! Moon snails; whelks; and lots of crabs. Rock crabs, blue crabs, green crabs, spider crabs. Most of them are carnivorous. And they would have been everywhere. They have very powerful chemo-receptors. In other words, they can 'smell' carrion from quite a distance. Mud snails do that, too. In fact, all the crustaceans have that ability. There are also numerous species of worm - like sand worms and blood worms. Fishermen around here use them for bait."

She told me that Maine lobster have been known to travel several miles across the ocean floor in search of food. But the most interesting thing she told me was that, far from being repelled by the jet fuel, lobsters are attracted by it. One of the illegal tricks in Maine is to put a gasoline- soaked brick in your lobster pot. It attracts them from miles around. After an oil-spill on Rhode Island, they found hundreds of dead lobsters washed up on the beach. They'd all come scuttling across to get at the oil."

She paused, sensing my horrified fascination. "It's a brutal world out there. If you are a scientist, you know that the best way to get a clean skeleton of something is to put it in a nylon bag and hang it off the end of a pier. We did it once with a dead seal for our students to study. It was picked clean in 24 hours. All that was left was clean, beautiful bone."

Such frank talk is easily branded as callous. While Hamlet could find it grimly amusing that a king could travel through the guts of a beggar, and Maine fisherman are known for their black jokes about lobsters and the drowned, we live at a time when there is an almost hysterical horror of the realities of death. Particularly in America.

"In the old days, people were far more practical about death," said Professor Shamway. "They used to wrap a body in a sheet and put it in a pine box. They knew it would be picked clean within a month. Now you have these steel coffins that are hermetically sealed so that nothing can get in for 10,000 years! It's ridiculous!"

The desperate search for human remains was equally incomprehensible to her.

"This obsession with having a bit of your relative. I didn't get it then. And I don't get it now. It's like those tiny boxes being shipped back from Vietnam after 30 years. It's crazy."

Like most of the people on the outside of the TWA 800 tragedy, I shared her sentiments. I tried to imagine how I would react if my own 10-year- old son, Nicholas, had been in the plane. Grief, yes. Massive, uncontrollable grief that would probably last for the rest of my life. But would I want to have a part of his leg, or his ear, to bury? I think I would have wanted his remains to lie undisturbed in their sea grave.

When I asked Vincent what he felt on the subject, he told me a story. "Two years before TWA 800, we were called to a boat that had capsized on the north shore near Montauk. We put a line on it, and attempted to right it. When we did, a body floated out. They realised that there were probably people still on the boat, so the dive team was called in: myself and another diver. Inside the boat, we found two boys, aged 10 and 12. The father was on the dock." Vincent paused. "You can't imagine the denial involved in all this. You want to believe what's most comfortable; and it's very easy to go through this denial and say: my kid could be floating somewhere, or washed up on a beach. And in your deepest heart of hearts you're going to hang onto the tiniest bit of hope. And I could see that this guy didn't want to believe what had happened. He kept saying: this can't be! This can't be! I felt really bad having to be the one who brought his boys to him. But afterwards, my sergeant came over and said: it's a good thing you did today. You gave him something to bury."

Neil Fenton, a psychologist from Brentwood, Long Island, who co-ordinated the team of 50 mental-health workers from Suffolk County, Nassau County and New York City in the wake of TWA 800, confirmed the powerful need for the victims' families to recover their loved ones. "It happened in the Civil War," he told me over coffee at Papa Nick's, a popular diner in Riverhead, the administrative capital of Suffolk County. "At Gettysburg, where soldiers were blown apart by cannonballs, people felt that need to take something home to bury. It provides closure."

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

America, And the world, wanted closure of a different sort. They wanted to know who, or what, had made TWA 800 explode. The conflict between the desire of the families to possess the remains of their loved ones, and the need of the investigators to find the cause of the crash - the conflict, if you like, between body parts and plane parts - was the central drama played out in the immediate aftermath of the crash. The victims' families wanted the recovery of victims to be the sole, and immediate, focus of the dive operations. The FBI and the National Transport Safety Board were desperate to gather evidence. And they wanted to do it fast, before time and salt water erased the stories lying at the bottom of the ocean. Publicly they insisted that the recovery of victims was the top priority. Privately, they were terrified that they would not be able to come up with a satisfactory explanation for what, if proved, would be the most heinous crime ever committed against the American people.

Everybody's first thought was: Arab terrorists. Specifically, Iranians. After all, the Americans had shot down an Iranian Jumbo jet in the Persian Gulf in 1987. Was this Hizbollah's revenge? Had TWA 800 been hit by a shoulder-fired missile aimed from the back of a boat or a pick-up truck parked in the dunes? Had it been bombed? The fact that the plane had come from Athens, before taking off from New York, added to the suspicion.

An early spin put out by the FBI was that a bomb had exploded in the forward cargo hold. Evidence marshalled to support this theory included reports by eye-witnesses who claimed to have seen two explosions: a smaller one followed a second later by a much larger one. The extensive damage to the landing gear and the fact that a cargo door, presumed to be the forward one, was found furthest up the flight path towards JFK, bolstered the bomb theory.

The NTSB favoured the centre-fuel-tank theory. According to this, the 50 to 100 gallons of jet fuel remaining in the centre fuel tank had somehow ignited. The likeliest cause was one of the electrical pumps mounted on the rear wall of the centre fuel tank, or one of the seven probes that measure the fuel supply. Or was the fuel ignited by a freakish build-up of static electricity?

The public took a different view. Fuelled by talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, an increasing number of Americans are convinced that their government consists, at best, of a bunch of incompetents and, at worst, of a self- serving clique of liars and swindlers whose main purpose is to cheat them of their birthright. The Internet buzzed with conspiracy theories. Favourite among them was the "friendly fire" missile-strike theory. According to this, TWA 800 was hit by a US Navy missile launched during a training exercise. Twenty credible witnesses claimed to have seen a flash of light streaking towards the plane.

And there were many unanswered questions. Why did the last radar images before the crash show an unidentified object in the flight path next to TWA 800? Why was there a Navy P3 Orion reconnaissance plane in the area of the crash? Why, after the plane exploded, did a Navy helicopter arrive on the scene a full two minutes before the accident had even been reported to the flight controllers at JFK? Why did the CIA refuse to make public images taken by its Data System II satellites on the night of the crash? All the ingredients for the biggest cover-up since Watergate were there.

The Navy later admitted that there had been military exercises on the night of the crash, and that Tomahawk missiles were fired, but claimed these exercises were happening a long way to the south. It also admitted that the P3 Orion, a plane specialised in submarine warfare, was in the region, but insisted it was not carrying missiles.

Other details bolstered the friendly fire thesis. War games are held at low altitudes and when it exploded TWA 800 was flying at an unusually low altitude (13,700ft), having been bumped off its usual altitude by a US Air jet. But if it was hit by a missile why wasn't there any damage to the engines? The conspiracy theorists had an answer. The Pentagon was testing a top-secret "kinetic" missile that honed in, not on the heat released by a plane's engines, but on its electronic systems. Something had gone wrong and instead of destroying a harmless target the missile had veered 350km off its path and smashed into the underbelly of a defenceless civilian plane. The experts said it was impossible. But to millions of on-line Americans its appeal was compelling. No one mentioned that this is also a country in which millions of seemingly sane people claim to have been abducted by space aliens.

A SOLITUDE OF THE SEA

Vincent And the other divers working on the sea bed had little time for conspiracy theories, though they did generate a few jokes. "When the missile theory was popular, we'd hop in the water and say: this could be the day we find the missile shaft!" By then, the focus of the operation had shifted. One hundred and fifty, more than two-thirds, of TWA 800's passengers were identified in the first two weeks. For Vincent, these first weeks were the hardest. It was like going to the scene of an appalling highway accident day after day. Now, instead of corpses with faces and histories, it was wreckage, and anonymous bones, that Vincent began to recover.

Strapped to his left leg, he wore a knife, round his right leg, a cluster of plastic tie-wraps. These are usually used by construction workers for binding electric cables, but the divers soon discovered that they were perfect for tying several bits of wreckage together. He had 250ft of half- inch nylon rope; a whistle, in case he ascended in the wrong place; and a flashlight. Clipped to his belt, he carried the lobster bag. Into it went what, in a rare moment of levity, became known as "the catch of the day".

Each piece of wreckage had to be logged and tagged on the dive boat in the presence of an FBI agent. It was then transferred to one of two Navy salvage ships before being brought ashore to the Shinnecock coastguard station. From there, the wreckage was transported, under massive police protection, by road to a hangar at Calverton, Long Island. Here, a team of NTSB officials, specialists from Boeing and mechanics brought in by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers began the unprecedented task of reassembling the plane.

Some of the wreckage Vincent found was heavy and difficult to manoeuvre. "I remember one piece of wreckage Jack and I found. It was pretty far out, and it took both of us to swim it back in. It was a piece of metal 4 or 5ft long. We found it after 10 minutes, so we only had five minutes bottom-time left. And I remember looking at Jack and thinking: shall we go for it? We could have tied it off and left it for the next divers - but that would mean an extra dive. So we both filled up our BCs with all the air they would hold, which was just enough to lift it off the bottom. We had to kick like crazy to get it back."

By the time they had tied the wreckage to the buoy's anchor and swum back to the surface, pausing on the way for their decompression stops, the LCD bar-graphs on their Matrix gauges (wristwatch-sized computers that continuously calculate the web of interconnected factors on which a diver's life depends: the amount of air, how much bottom-time remains and, most crucial of all, how much nitrogen has been absorbed into the bloodstream) had turned from green, to amber, to red. Vincent and the other divers frequently red-lined it, working to the very last second of their 15 minute bottom-time. This was not a problem in itself. But combined with the vigorous physical activity, the cold, and the stressful nature of the work, it greatly increased their chances of succumbing to a condition that is every diver's worst nightmare: the bends.

No one exactly understands how, or why, divers get the bends. What they do know is that, like narcosis, it involves nitrogen and what is referred to as the depth-time curve. Stay down too deep, too long, and the body will not be able to purge itself naturally of the nitrogen build-up, even if the diver makes decompression stops on his way to the surface. Then, if the diver is not placed immediately in a decompression chamber, nitrogen bubbles can remain in the blood and tissue. These cause a prickly, burning feeling on the skin, rashes, pains in the joints and muscle weakness. In severe cases the bends can result in vomiting, convulsions and death.

"The whole thing about it," Vincent explained, "is that it is not an exact science. You can go down 100 times and do the exact same dive, and come up fine. And the 101st time, you might come up and have the bends."

Vincent didn't get the bends. But as the dive operation dragged on into the autumn, the work became steadily harder. The weather had been unusually calm and benevolent at the beginning of the operation. But on 2 September Hurricane Edouard slammed into southern Long Island with winds of 100mph and 20ft waves that sent the Navy ships scuttling for the shelter of Staten Island. There were more storms in October. The sea began to cool. It was hard, lonely work.

"There's 130ft of water between you and anyone else. No one can hear you, and you can't speak to anyone; and they can't see you, and you can't see them. You feel very alone."

There were moments of humour. Picking up on an old joke ("If you need a cop, look for a donut shop"), the Navy divers would scribble the word "donuts" on the marker buoys, with an arrow pointing down, before dropping them into the sea. There were even moments of happiness. One day, as the divers got back onto the boat, two humpback whales, a mother and a calf, broke the surface. Another time, a zebra fish, one of the brightly coloured Caribbean migrants that occasionally follow the Gulf Stream up into the North Atlantic, hovered around the divers as they worked, then followed them up to the surface.

In all, Vincent made 48 dives. Like every diver, he hoped that he would be the one who would find the missing piece that would solve the jigsaw, the scrap of debris that could unlock the mystery of why TWA 800 crashed. But even though divers recovered the plane's flight recorder within a matter of days, and all four of the plane's engines were found soon after, the mystery is as complete as ever.

THE AFTERMATH

I Met Vincent for the last time at the East Moriches coastguard station on a Tuesday in late May. Before going into the building, we sat on a bench looking out across the water. It was one of those champagne days that make Long Island such a pleasant place to live. A flock of shelducks skimmed across the water, their wings flashing black and white above the green-blue. I asked Vinnie if the crash had changed the way he felt about the sea.

"No. I have always known the sea can be your friend, and I have also known that it can be ... not your foe - but unforgiving."

As he spoke, we heard the rumble of jet engines. Looking up, we saw the glint of a Boeing 747 ploughing eastwards across the sky. It was bound for Europe. It was almost exactly where TWA 800 had exploded.

Vincent seemed tired that day, and less communicative than he had been the other times. I sensed that he had said all he wanted to say. So, up in the kitchen of the coastguard station, we looked at the photo album he had put together. The first picture showed a heavily built man lying on his front on the deck of Romeo. It was taken on the first night. A white sheet covered the upper portion of the man's body. His legs, which stuck out from the bottom of the sheet, were covered in blood. There was blood on the deck. In the background, another man lay on his back, like a stone knight in a medieval church.

The photographs became less grim the further we went into the album. In one, Vincent and his dive buddy, Jack Blaum, are sitting at the back of the boat in their dive-suits. Both men are tanned and smiling. The sea behind them is a deep turquoise. In another, he and Jack proudly hold up a long, jagged length of grey metal, like holiday-makers in Florida who have just landed a shark.

There was a picture of Vincent going down the descent line to the ocean floor. Another showed him, back on the surface, holding his lobster bag. At his feet was the "catch of the day": a piece of panelling with two black, plastic nozzles sticking out of it; the arm of a seat; a piece of framing from the fuselage. I recognised almost none of it.

Several photos were of marine creatures that had come up with the wreckage - a tile fish that had squeezed itself into a length of twisted metal; a lobster that had refused to leave a chunk of panelling; a 3ft conger eel that had made itself at home in a length of TWA 800's wing. Another showed a round, discoloured clump of bone with what looked like a stork's beak tapering out from it: a dolphin's skull.

Ironically, Vinnie was on a dive vacation in Florida with Jack and two other divers when the TWA 800 operation came to an end on 31 October. The vacation was long overdue. A storm had temporarily shut down the salvage operation. He packed his bags and went to the Keys.

"I was worn down by the whole thing. Diving six days a week, working 10 to 14 hours a day. I was very stressed out. I just wanted to be in warm water, and look at fish. The water was so clear. Visibility was about 60 to 80ft. Water temperature was about 80 degrees. We saw huge formations of coral, and fish. I didn't have to worry about a descent line. I didn't have to worry about that 15 minutes. I could go in any direction I wanted. I was like a little kid."

No divers have been in the waters around the crash site since then. But for five months, all through last winter, four scallop boats contracted by the Navy ploughed the gun-metal grey sea, dragging a huge rake across the sandy bottom. Along with the scallops and clams, seaweed, sponges and eels, the long nets that billow out behind the rakes brought up wreckage buried in the mud. They also brought up human remains. One passenger was identified as late as March, by DNA tests done on a fragment of bone. By the beginning of July, 95 per cent of the plane had been recovered. Nothing gave me a more vivid sense of just how big a 747 is than the discovery that the remaining 5 per cent is the equivalent of four large automobiles.

It's one of the strange ironies of the TWA story that the most technologically complex salvage operation ever conducted should have ended like this. The Algonquin Indians collected scallops in these waters and, since the 1600s, when the first white settlers arrived, scalloping, along with tuna fishing, clamming and seine-netting, has been one of the main occupations on the East End of Long Island. In recent years, the industry has been in steep decline. The money the Navy is paying the four captains, two from New Jersey, two from Martha's Vineyard, was a welcome bonus. Good work if you can get it.

For the people of Long Island, the events of last year still cast a long shadow. "This whole area is still traumatised," the psychologist Neil Fenton told me. "People who witnessed the transportation of bodies, trauma responders, medical technicians, people at the Medical Examiner's Office, dentists who helped do the dental examinations, people connected with the coastguard, civilians who went out that night, the police, even journalists. I'm still getting calls from a guy who pulled bodies out of the water on the first night. Even after seven months, he is having nightmares."

Vincent Termine has, so far, managed to deal with the after-effects himself. But the crash has had a profound influence on his life. "What I've learned in the police force is how precious life is, and how easy it is for people to lose their family. I've had people die in my arms, helped deliver babies, seen people who have committed suicide, or been hit by trains. And every time I think the same thing: life is precious and we don't appreciate it. It's moulded my philosophy to life: seize the moment. If you can do something today, do it: you don't know what tomorrow brings. Life can be fleeting. You may not have it tomorrow."

As of 1 July, the recovery and salvage operation has cost $27 million, but investigators are no closer to explaining why the people onboard TWA 800 died. In March, the FBI said it had not closed its mind to the missile theory, though it still believes it is the least likely scenario. The FBI's Jim Kalstrom cites the fact that spy satellites showed no sign of a missile (though the FBI has declined to release their logs) and that no damage, like a pierced section of fuselage or an engine hit by a heat- seeking missile, has been found.

The Internet continues to hum with conspiracy theories. In March, former White House press secretary Pierre Salinger expanded his friendly fire theory in an article in Paris Match, citing the testimony of Richard Russell, a retired airline pilot who claimed to have made a radar tape on the night of the crash that showed a missile streaking towards the plane. A red residue found on the front seats was also claimed to be consistent with chemical elements found in solid missile fuel. The FBI says it is glue. Salinger and Russell announced the birth of a book: Cover Ups! The Story Behind TWA Flight 800, Pan Am 103 and KAL 007.

The book is sure to do well. But while the excited chatter about black systems and kinetic missiles continues, a far more banal but, to anyone who travels by plane, chilling explanation has been almost completely ignored. One of the few things that have been conclusively proved about TWA 800 is that the plane's centre fuel tank exploded. It could have been hit by a missile, but no proof has been found that it was. It could have been ignited by a bomb but, again, no conclusive traces of bomb damage have been found.

So why did it blow up? No one talks much about it, but TWA 800 spent several hours sitting on the tarmac at JFK, in sweltering, summer heat, while it waited for clearance to take off. Throughout that time, the air-conditioning and pressurisation systems were running. At the time, the centre fuel tank was nearly empty of fuel. Estimates range from between 50 to 100 gallons. Wouldn't that decrease the chances of an explosion? Wrong. Fighter pilots fear flying with almost empty fuel tanks more than anything else, including enemy missiles.

Just as a car's air-conditioning system overheats if left running in a stationary position, so the air-conditioning and pressurisation systems steadily heated up as the jet, and its cargo of 230 human lives, sat on the tarmac. On a Boeing, these systems are located directly beneath the centre fuel tank. The heat had nowhere to go except upwards. We do not know what caused the spark that ignited the explosion (the most likely explanation seems to be static electricity) and we may never know. What we do know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the plane was allowed to sit on the tarmac in 80 degree heat for three hours with its air-conditioning and pressurisation systems slowly, but surely, heating up a witches' brew of highly combustible fuel vapour. Conspiracy theories? The real scandal may be that aircraft are allowed to take off at all in such circumstances.

As of 1 July, 216 of the 230 passengers who were on board when the plane exploded have been identified. The remains of Ashton Lamar Allen, Arthur and Joan Benjamin, Constance Charbonnier, Jean-Paul Galland, Guisenne Mercurio, Avishaim Meshulam, Janet Marie O'Hara, Dennis Price, Brent Richey, Kartrina M Rose, Eugene David Silverman, William Robert Story and Jean-Jacques Zara have not been found.

- Simon Worrall is a British journalist. His work has appeared in 'Esquire', 'Harpers & Queen' and the 'Sunday Times'. He lives in East Hampton, New York.

Vincent Termine looks out to sea: a year ago, he was at the centre of the biggest salvage operation ever mounted

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