The reconstructed wreckage of TWA Flight 800, which has been painstakingly reconstructed as part of the Boeing 747 investigation, is to be destroyed following the 25th anniversary of the tragedy.
The plane crashed at 8:30 p.m. on July 17, 1996, just 12 minutes after takeoff from New York’s John F Kennedy Airport bound for Paris.
All 230 people on board were killed in the mid-flight explosion over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island.
It remains one of the deadliest aviation accidents in U.S. history. Adding to the tragedy was the suspicion that the explosion on board was the result of a terrorist attack.
Following the accident, a four-year investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that it was caused by a spark from an electrical fault that ignited a flammable fuel-air mixture in the central fuel tank.
As part of the investigation, more than 1,600 pieces of the plane were recovered from the waters off New York and reassembled to determine what happened.
The NTSB has now announced that the disturbing 93-foot, 60,000-pound reconstructed airframe of the plane, including the Boeing 747’s distinctive upper deck windows, are to be destroyed.
The reconstructed aircraft was moved from New York to Ashburn, Virginia, in 2003 and has been used to train first responders and transportation safety investigators.
It has been kept out of public view as part of an agreement with the victims’ families. However, loved ones can visit, and some have left small tokens of remembrance on the seats assigned to their deceased relatives.
The lease on the hangar where the aircraft is stored is running out and the NTSB has decided that it is no longer practical to maintain it.
“After 25 years, family members realize it’s a reasonable time to let go,” said James Hall, who was chairman of the NTSB during the TWA 800 accident and investigation. “Nevertheless, it’s bittersweet.”
Frank Hilldrup, an NTSB official who was part of the original team of Flight 800 investigators, told CNN, “It’s been very helpful, but I think we’ve reached a point where it’s time to move on, but in a different way.”
Only a small number of aircraft have been reconstructed after crashes as part of the investigation. One of these was Pan Am Flight 103 that crashed in the town of Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988. A terrorist bomb brought down the plane en route from London Heathrow to New York.
The scale of the operation to recover TWA Flight 800 was immense. The U.S. Navy, FBI, 200 divers, 14 ships, remotely operated vehicles and contracted fishing boats were deployed to recover 95% of the aircraft over ten months.
After nearly a year, the remains of all the deceased were also recovered.
Suspicions that it was a terrorist attack grew due to hundreds of witness accounts of seeing a flare-like object near the plane before it burst into flames. Some onlookers used the term “rocket” or “missile” and conspiracies abounded.
Just five years before 9/11, the Clinton administration considered whether state-sponsored actors had carried out an attack against the continental United States.
When the real cause was deemed to be an accident, security recommendations changed the standards for aircraft design and construction.
The 230 people on board TWA Flight 800 came from 14 countries and included 152 Americans and 40 French nationals.
There were 18 crew members and 20 off-duty TWA employees on the flight who were to take the plane from Paris to Rome.
Notable passengers included French field hockey player Michel Breistroff, guitarist Marcel Dadi, composer David Hogan and interior designer and director Jed Johnson, Andy Warhol’s partner of 12 years.
In addition, there were 16 students and five adult chaperones from the Montoursville Area High School French Club in Pennsylvania.
A private memorial service will be held Saturday on Long Island for the families of the victims.
By Oliver O’Connell – Independent
Plataforma Informativa de Aviación Comercial líder en América Latina.