ASHBURN, Va. — The bones of one of America’s worst air disasters are finally being laid to rest.
But there will be no special grave or burial ceremony for the battered, twisted and fire-scarred chunk of fuselage from TWA Flight 800 which exploded minutes after takeoff 25 years ago this month over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 230 passengers and crew members who were bound for Paris and then Rome.
A 93-foot-long, two-story, white, silver and red aluminum and steel section of the doomed Boeing 747 jetliner is about to be chopped and melted into scrap.
Or as the National Transportation Safety Board officially calls the process: “Certified destruction.”
Before this painstaking dismantling begins, NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network was given an exclusive look Tuesday at the fuselage, which has sat for nearly two decades in a sweltering warehouse just off a highway in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.
The NTSB’s lease on the warehouse and its adjoining classrooms is expiring. So the fuselage, which had been used as a training tool for NTSB aviation crash investigators, had to go, too.
Relatives of victims are currently being told they can take a final peek in the coming weeks at the jetliner’s remains. But so far only a handful have requested a final goodbye.
“I saw it once. It was more than enough in my lifetime,” said John Seaman of Albany, New York, who lost his 19-year-old niece and went on to lead a coalition of victims’ relatives in a campaign to upgrade airline safety. “If you had someone sitting in these seats, when you see that plane it’s a very horrible experience.”
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Besides Seaman’s niece, Michele Becker, 19, the victims included a cross-section of American life.
There were 16 members of a high school French club from Montoursville, Pennsylvania, and the group’s five adult chaperones. Other victims ranged from a French hockey player and a French guitarist to an American crime victims’ rights activist, an American composer, a German fashion photographer and an interior designer who worked with artist Andy Warhol.
Adding to the tragedy that seems to follow TWA 800, James Kallstrom, the agency’s assistant director who led the multi-year investigation into the crash, died this week, according to CBS New York.
Kallstrom, 78, who directed more than 1,000 agents in the TWA 800 probe and conducted 90 press conferences, initially suspected that the plane had been brought down by terrorism. Like the NTSB, which took four years to conduct its inquiry, he eventually concluded that the crash was caused by the plane’s mechanical problems.
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The debris from TWA 800 that ended up in the warehouse in Northern Virginia was pulled from the Atlantic only miles off the coast of New York’s Fire Island not long after the jetliner blew apart as the summer sun was setting on July 17, 1996.
The plane had taken off from John F. Kennedy International Airport only 13 minutes earlier.
As it climbed to roughly 13,000 feet and curled along the coast of Long Island on a northern route across the Atlantic, an explosion rocked the plane.
The jetliner dropped. Then another explosion — this one more massive than the first — tore the plane in half.
The twilight sky glowed. Debris rained across the Atlantic for another 20 minutes, aviation officials say.
In the ensuing years, the pieces of wreckage — first gathered in a hangar on Long Island, then the Northern Virginia warehouse — became a heart-stopping talisman to the brutality of the tragedy.
To view that fuselage now — even after more than two decades — is still shocking.
“It’s been 25 years. That doesn’t mean the loss is any less painful,” said Elias Kontanis, the chief of the NTSB’s Transportation Disaster Assistance Division, which was set up after the TWA 800 crash to care for victims’ families.
Sitting on the cement floor of a hangar-like warehouse on an auxiliary science campus of George Washington University, the wreckage seems almost like a broken war relic now — silent and menacing and yet mysterious and helpless, too. It’s a far cry from the sleek, powerful jetliner it once was.
The fuselage was reconstructed by the NTSB, with more than 1,000 chunks — some dented or peeled or charred — that were eventually pieced together like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle on a steel skeleton. Some of the pieces were found floating in the Atlantic across a search area that stretched for miles. Some were pulled from the ocean floor by U.S. Navy divers.
The process was so painstaking that investigators actually placed rows of seats in their correct spots inside the fuselage.
“Some families know the seat assignments,” said Sharon Bryson, a former NTSB victims assistance specialist who is now the agency’s managing director.
In some cases, Bryson said, families ask the NTSB to place bouquets of flowers on seats that were assigned to their loved ones. But in recent years the number of contacts with families has dropped dramatically — to less than half a dozen in the last decade, she said.
Jill Ziemkiewicz’s mother, Carol, a former third grade teacher who now lives in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, said she hasn’t decided yet on whether she wants to make a final trip to the warehouse to view the plane that took her youngest daughter’s life. She saw the wreckage years ago and was deeply disturbed.
“I went there knowing it might upset me, but it really tore me apart,” Carol said. “It was so upsetting. It affected me a lot.”
Carol’s son, Matthew Ziemkiewicz, the deputy coordinator of emergency management in Bergen County, New Jersey, said he has made the trek to the NTSB warehouse more than half a dozen times to view the wreckage. In some cases, he came as a guest lecturer to advise aviation crash investigators on how to handle grieving families.
But the experience of viewing the remains of the fuselage always left him stunned.
“It still takes my breath away every time I see it,” Matthew Ziemkiewicz said. “To go to the airport and see a 747 on the tarmac is one thing. It’s different when you see it in pieces.”
The NTSB’s “decommissioning” of the fuselage in the warehouse is so secret that it is being managed like a military operation. The ultimate goal is to melt, slice, dice and otherwise eviscerate the 60,000-pound section of the jetliner — including passengers’ seats — into bits and pieces so unrecognizable that profiteers won’t be able to sell it.
“We don’t want any of this turning up on eBay,” said NTSB spokesman Christopher T. O’Neil. “When all is said and done, there will be nothing that can be used as an artifact of TWA 800. There’s not going to be anything that can be exploited.”
The NTSB even promised families of victims that it won’t allow pieces of the wreckage to be donated to a museum.
But whether this meticulous dismantling will also chase away the ghosts of doubt, conspiracy and outright distrust that have loomed as a haunting backstory to the TWA 800 tragedy is yet another question.
Frank Hilldrup, the NTSB’s chief technical adviser for international aviation, certainly hopes those ghosts disappear.
In 1996, as an NTSB investigator, Hilldrup flew to Long Island the morning after TWA 800 crashed. He stayed with the probe, searching for clues, for another four years.
“It was the biggest investigation I’ve been a part of,” Hilldrup said Tuesday as he stood in the warehouse and gazed at the TWA 800 fuselage.
Hilldrup, who has participated in more than 100 aviation inquiries with the NTSB, said the scores of investigators naturally wanted to find a “smoking gun.” But that was no easy task.
Eventually, he said, investigators concluded that sparks from faulty wiring ignited a fuel tank.
“Right there,” Hilldrup said, pointing to a blackened part of the fuselage.
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After the explosion in the July twilight 25 years ago, surfers, bathers and beachcombers gasped along the Long Island coast. Was it a bomb placed by the same terrorists who brought down Pan Am Flight 103 eight years earlier over Lockerbie, Scotland? Was it a missile, possibly wrongly fired by a U.S. Navy ship or even by a terrorist? Or was it some sort of accident?
The explosion occurred amid a series of terrorist incidents. Besides the bombing in December 1988 of Pan Am 103 by Libyan intelligence agents, there was the explosion at New York City’s World Trade Center in February 1993 set off by Islamist operatives and the attack on a federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995 by right-wing radicals. Only 10 days after TWA 800 blew up, an alleged anti-abortion activist set off a bomb at the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
It took the FBI more than a year and interviews with 755 witnesses to conclude that the TWA 800 crash was not caused by a “criminal act.” It took four years before the NTSB ruled that the plane blew up after sparks from a mechanical failure ignited a fuel tank.
The NTSB’s conclusion led to other questions — namely whether the plane was too old and worn out.
The doomed 747 began flying in 1971. By the time it exploded in midair 25 years later, it had logged nearly 17,000 flights. On the morning before it exploded, the jetliner had flown from Greece to New York.
In the aftermath, victims’ families filed hundreds of lawsuits against Boeing, the plane’s manufacturer, and TWA, said James Kreindler, an aviation lawyer who handled some of the TWA 800 cases. He’s now a lead attorney on a massive lawsuit charging Saudi Arabia with helping Islamist hijackers to pull off the 9/11 terror attacks. The TWA 800 lawsuits were eventually settled, with millions paid to the victims’ families.
But the legal actions and even the NTSB findings did little to soothe the pain for victims’ families.
The NTSB’s Sharon Bryson, the former agency victims advocate, says she thinks of those families each time she views the broken fuselage in the warehouse.
On Tuesday, she was reminded once again.
“Many people,” she said, “lost their lives on that plane.”
Follow Mike Kelly on Twitter: @mikekellycolumn
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ASHBURN, Va. — The bones of one of America’s worst air disasters are finally being laid to rest.