A scar in the ocean

Blast over Atlantic leaves 230 dead and the fear that the jet was brought down by a bomb

David Usborne,New York
Thursday 18 July 1996 23:02

You would not imagine that the open ocean could bear a scar. But here, 12 miles off the sandy southern coast of Long Island, New York, and 6,000 feet in the air, that is just what can be seen. Beneath me, in the exact spot where TWA Flight 800 met its terrible end, lies a dark and ugly gash of unburned aviation fuel and oil.

A little higher and we would be at the same altitude at which the 747 jumbo jet, bound for Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris with 230 passengers and crew, erupted into a fireball and plummeted into the waves. And now, to peer down from a circling helicopter is to understand only a fraction of the horror of what happened in these skies after nightfall.

Last night ABC News reported that an Arabic newspaper, later identified as al-Hayat, had received warning, hours before Wednesday's explosion, that an American target would be attacked by the Movement for Islamic Change, the same group that claimed responsibility for the recent bombing in Saudi Arabia. The State Department reacted to the ABC report by saying it viewed the warning as a "general political tract" and "not a specific threat".

At the time of the explosion it was already dark and rescue efforts were almost impossible. When the rescue mission got fully under way, there were at least 20 vessels searching. They patrolled the area constantly yesterday, in the rapidly fading hope that some survivors would still be found. Bright orange Coast Guard helicopters skimmed the waves over a search area that expanded to a radius of 200 miles. The aircraft is by now either deep down on the seabed, or, more likely, shattered into thousands of pieces.

One section of the aircraft, about 30 feet long, has been retrieved, but hundreds of small pieces of wreckage remain, bobbing on the waves.

Tray tables, seat-backs and life jackets float on the surface alongside suitcases and small, personal, bags. From the site of the crash, a relay of ships sailed north to the small port of East Moriches. Equipment was sent out to help with the search, including technology for locating the aircraft's black boxes.

Some of the ships moving towards land were carrying bodies. By midday yesterday about 100 bodies had been found, some intact, others in pieces.

Everything retrieved by the ships will be minutely examined for clues. Uppermost in most minds is the thought that only some kind of bomb, detonated on board, could have precipitated so devastating a crash.

At the East Moriches Coast Guard station, a command centre has been set up with a full array of state and federal officials, including agents from the FBI, adding to the belief that this was no mechanical failure, even though the aircraft was elderly. A 747-131, it was first put into service by TWA in 1971. Officials say finding the cause of the crash will probably take several days.

At a brief White House press conference, President Bill Clinton said: "Let's wait until we get the facts and let's remember the families. We do not know what caused this tragedy."

The explosion was witnessed by the crew of an aircraft of the New York Air Guard on night manoeuvres. "There was a large flash," Lieutenant Colonel Charles Sties reported, "then the debris began breaking up. The Air Guard plane headed towards the scene but pulled back because debris was still falling." On shore, the Coast Guard heard the distress call. "Mayday, Mayday", and then nothing.

Local people who had been enjoying a summer evening on their shore-side verandas reported hearing a large explosion, and then seeing a fireball followed by dark smoke.

The plane had arrived in New York from Athens. Reports said it underwent last-minute repairs on the ground just before take-off. There was one blessing for air passengers travelling on a connecting TWA flight from Chicago: their aircraft did not make it to New York in time for them to catch the ill-fated transatlantic service.

Back at East Moriches, authorities struggled to drive onlookers away from the shore and sailors from the crash site, some on a thrill quest, others hoping somehow to help.

Until late last night, TWA believed 228 people had died, then passenger lists were rechecked and two more victims were identified.

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