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No sign of survivors from TWA crash off Long Island

Boeing 747 leaves path of flaming debris

Lights on the water

July 18, 1996
Web posted at: 7:00 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Searchers combed the Atlantic Ocean early Thursday morning looking for possible survivors from the explosion and crash of TWA Flight 800, but the Coast Guard said they saw no signs of life.

TWA Vice President Mike Kelly said there were 212 passengers and 17 crew members aboard the Boeing 747, which was en route from New York City to Paris, and then to Rome. Some passengers were originally booked on a flight to Rome that was canceled.

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Rescuers were searching an area of five square miles in water about 120 feet deep, according to the Coast Guard.

Based on a water temperature of about 65 degrees, survivors could last about eight hours before being rescued, Coast Guard Cmdr. Elmo Peters said. At least 73 bodies had been recovered and taken to a temporary morgue, he said. The Coast Guard had at least 40 search units at the scene, about 15 miles from Moriches Inlet on the south side of Long Island.

CNN's Gary Tuchman reported from outside the Coast Guard station that dejected ambulance drivers were slowly leaving the scene, their vehicles empty. He said there was a general feeling of hopelessness, although many emergency workers were still hoping for what they called a "miracle" as the search continued at a feverish pace.

Investigators, including the FBI, were on hand. There was no known cause for the crash, and the FBI said so far it was "not prepared to declare it a terrorist-related incident."

TWA info: 1-800-438-9892 (families only) Paris info: 33-1-48-64-9832 (families only)

Plane only minutes into flight

The Boeing 747 jet, which had arrived from Athens, Greece, about three hours earlier, left John F. Kennedy Airport for Charles DeGaulle Airport about 8 p.m. EDT, and disappeared from the radar screen at 8:40 p.m., Kelly said.


"I don't think I need to tell you how concerned and upset we are. This is the worst possible thing that can happen, and we will attend to it in the best way possible," he said. (519K AIFF or WAV sound)

President Clinton expressed "deep concern" about the crash and was monitoring developments, a White House spokesman said.

Among the passengers booked on the flight were 16 high school students and five adult chaperones from Montoursville, Pennsylvania. The students were members of the Montoursville High School French club and had planned their trip to France for more than a year.

Eyewitnesses describe fireball

Four hours after the crash, aerial shots from local television showed a long, narrow strip of flaming debris in the water.

Eyewitness Sven Faret was piloting a private plane off Long Island about the time of the crash, he told CNN affiliate WNYW-TV in New York. "We saw a giant ball; an instant later you just saw pieces drop out of it."

It was "definitely in the air," he said.

Eyewitness Eileen Daly said she was walking on the beach with her 14-year-old son when they saw the explosion.

"We were out on the beach and he says, 'Oh look,' and we saw what looked like fireworks in the sky, big white flash," she said.

"It turned into a big orange fireball that stretched from the sky down to the water, then it broke into two pieces, then it just fell into the water." At first, she thought it was fireworks. Then, she said she thought, "Oh my God, it's an airplane." (391K AIFF or WAV sound)

Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Kevin Carlson, working at a command center at Moriches Inlet on Long Island, said an Air National Guard C-130 "observed a large explosion" at about the same time TWA said the plane dropped off the radar screen. The C-130's crew immediately turned back to refuel, then headed to the crash scene to aid in the search.

Too early to speculate

Pan AM 747 (file)

Although the cause of the explosion was not known, terrorism expert Larry Johnson said, "This was a bomb on board, without a doubt. You do not get these kinds of catastrophic mid-air explosions in airliners without an explosive on board."

Johnson said he had his own "short list" of suspects, but stressed that it was too premature to list any.

However, former National Transportation Safety Board official Vernon Grose said even bringing up the possibility of terrorism so early was irresponsible. He said eyewitness descriptions suggested alternatives to a bombing.

"It might be that there was a fire on board, and then the plane exploded," he said. The White House also cautioned against blaming the crash on terrorists before all the evidence was known.

The plane was first delivered in October 1971, making it one of the oldest of the jumbo jets in commercial service, a spokeswoman for the aircraft manufacturer said.

Security was tight

U.S. airports have been on a heightened state of alert because of the arrival of Olympic athletes from all over the world in the last few weeks. The Olympic Games begin in Atlanta on Friday.

Moreover, New York Gov. George Pataki said the New York area has been at its highest level of security "since arrival of the Pope," who visited the United States in October 1995.

Pataki said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited New York in the past two weeks, as had many Olympic athletes, and security couldn't get much tighter.

At a news conference Wednesday night, Kelly confirmed that airport security had been increased for the Olympics, and TWA had complied with the new requirements.


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