Column: Twelve minutes after takeoff, 230 lives were lost

On the night of July 17, 1996, I was driving east on the Long Island Expressway, headed home to Cutchogue after a workday at Newsday. I passed over the William Floyd Parkway at around 8:30 p.m. Nothing caught my attention at that moment — hundreds of people would later say they saw a “streak of light” in the sky south of Moriches — and I would not know something horrific had happened until I pulled down my driveway 25 minutes later.

As I got out of the car, one of my daughters ran out of the house and said the news desk was desperate to find me. I called and was told to drive to a marina in Hampton Bays, where a fishing boat owner was waiting to take me offshore. 

Night was falling on a beautiful summer evening across eastern Long Island. What had happened?

“A jet has gone down somewhere south of Moriches,” the editor said, explaining that a reporter, Bill Bleyer, had arranged for me to go out on the boat to the area where the plane, which I would later know to be TWA Flight 800, had gone down.

“You will meet John Williams at the marina and you can both go out together,” the editor said. 

John was one of the best photographers the paper had — and perhaps has ever had — and knowing I was meeting him was reassuring that we would be able to get out to sea and document what had happened.

We both arrived at the marina at about the same time. It was now closer to 10 p.m. We left the dock within minutes of our arrival and headed southwest across a remarkably flat ocean. There was no wind; the sea was a mirror of saltwater beauty, the sky overhead fading from a brilliant blue to a dome of bright stars.

As we headed southwest we proceeded into a cloud of burning jet fuel. The smell was overwhelming; we could not maneuver around it. John and I were grateful the sea was so flat, but the smell of the burning fuel was worse than any sea sickness. 

By 11 p.m. or so we began to see wreckage floating in the ocean. Seat cushions, parts of the jet’s fuselage, luggage. And then: an empty baby bottle. In the distance in front of us the sea was burning, a long line of bright-yellow flames.

John snapped a picture as I held onto the back of his belt to keep him steady. He was sickened by the fumes and feared pitching overboard as he aimed his camera. Newsday would run the photograph, and it would also run across three fold-out pages in Time magazine. It also ran in Newsweek.

The closer we got to the flames the more wreckage we passed through. Flight 800, headed from New York to Rome with a stopover in Paris, had not crashed into the sea but had clearly exploded. Pieces big and small — parts of the nose cone, the wings, large sections of fuselage — filled the ocean, along with the belongings of 230 passengers.

Luggage, clothes, shoes, carry-on bags, and that empty baby bottle. It was not hard as we slipped slowly around the wreckage, ever mindful of the human toll all around us, to picture a mother holding a baby in her arms at the very moment the jet exploded and plunged into the sea. To this day, though, I don’t know for sure if there was a baby onboard, as the passenger lists do not document a child that young. But there are some names without ages. All these years later – was there a baby onboard?  

Included in the passengers: 16 students and five adult chaperones from the French Club of Montoursville Area High School in Pennsylvania.

As the evening went on, scores of fishing boats arrived on scene, all with the hope that somewhere out there, somehow, might be a survivor. Some of the larger boats began picking up debris and stacking it on their decks to take back to a dock where everything would be collected and examined.

Twenty-five years have passed since that evening, about which so much has been written and speculated. In the days immediately after people said they saw a “streak of light” rising from the sea towards the jet. Some said they interpreted the light as a missile fired at the jet. The FBI initially said they were investigating the explosion — which occurred at 8:31 and 12 seconds — as an act of terrorism.

Radar returns later showed no missiles fired at the jet. Something inside the jet had exploded, sending large parts of it and all aboard into the dark sea below. Some sort of suspicious residue was found, but in the end the cause was said to be an explosion in the center-wing fuel tank.

Two hundred and thirty passengers said goodbye to their loved ones that night. We’ve all seen those kinds of scenes at departing gates at airports. People hug and say goodbye, have a great trip, we will see you when you get back. Send us pictures, honey!

Back in Montoursville, families were thrilled their sons or daughters were off to Europe on an exciting trip. It’s easy to picture the mood inside the jet as it left JFK Airport and climbed into the night sky, the sun setting behind it in the west. The crew waiting for the ping that would tell them they could begin serving refreshments. Passengers happily chatting with each other.

And then, 12 minutes after takeoff, their lives were all lost.

The author has been the executive editor for Times Review Media Group since July 2017. He was among the Newsday staffers to share in the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting for their coverage of the TWA Flight 800 crash.