SHIRLEY, NY – TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed mid-flight over Long Island on a hot and humid July 1996 evening, and none of the 230 passengers and crew on board survived after crashing into the Atlantic Ocean just off Moriches Inlet.
It is a day that must not be forgotten by the families of those who perished in the ill-fated robbery and those who desperately tried to save them in the hours that followed. On Saturday, the 25th anniversary of the flight, the victims were remembered in a ceremony at the TWA Flight 800 International Memorial at Smith Point County Park in Shirley.
“For the emergency response community and first responders, July 17, 1996 is one of those events that anyone who responded that night will take with them to their grave,” said David Fischler, who was Suffolk County Fire Marshal, Rescue and Emergency Services at the time.
The plane took off from John F. Kennedy International bound for Rome, Italy, with a stopover in Paris, France, but exploded about 10 minutes later. The rescue effort was something Long Island had never experienced before – on a massive scale with the response from dozens of local police and firefighters, as well as federal and state agencies on site.
The 230 dead included 15 students on a French class trip from Montoursville, Pennsylvania. Locally, there was Eric and Virginia Holst, who lived in Manorville. In a recent interview, Virginia’s mother, Luz Palaez, said: “It’s been 25 years, and it’s still very difficult to realize that my daughter is no longer here.”
Gratitude for the selflessness and compassion shown by first responders
John Seaman, whose niece Michelle Becker was lost in the crash, said: “God bless the divers – these men who risked their lives to bring back our loved ones.”
“If any of them are here tonight, we owe you eternal gratitude, and if there is any in the sound of my voice, God bless you,” he said. “We love you.”
Seaman said families pray every morning for the first responders involved in the rescue and recovery efforts.
“Thanks a lot, guys,” he added.
There have been different theories over the years as to how the plane exploded, including that a missile targeted the flight. This was ruled out by investigators, and National Transportation Safety Board investigators later determined that the explosion was from a fuel tank.
A lasting tribute
Completed in 2004, the memorial is located on a hill with two entrances, including a long walkway with the flags of the countries of origin of the victims – half unfurled for the ceremony.
Inside there is a granite wall inscribed with the names of the victims on one side. Engraved on the other side is a wave with birds soaring in the sky, but on Saturday, as with every memorial, there were two commemorative wreaths placed on the site – one for the passengers, the other for the flight crew members.
The enclosure is surrounded by landscaping maintained by experts, slabs and benches dedicated to loved ones and first responders. The landscaping was donated by the Independent Group Home Living Nursery and is maintained periodically by the Suffolk County Parks Department. It is accessible to visitors all year round.
Peter Goelz, former chief executive of the NTSB, recalled speaking with New York firefighter chaplain Father Mychal Judge, who was himself killed five years later in response to the terrorist attacks around the World Trade Center, the day he officiated at the first memorial service to Smith. Point, which was the closest point to the wreckage, and how he noticed it was “the perfect spot”.
“In the end, what a beautiful memorial it is,” Goelz added.
The ceremony ended with the reading of the 230 names of the dead.
As the names were read, some families and first responders left quietly, others took white carnations, walked on the sand and threw them into the ocean waves.
Forever by the sea, but also in their hearts
Suffolk County Legislature Speaker Rob Calarco, who was just a teenager living in the upstate at the time of the crash, said he believed attending the annual memorial ceremony helped families heal.
He thanked everyone involved in his upkeep for continuing to make sure he stays in the good condition that he is, “so that he can be a place to come to anytime, not just now, but to any time of the year “.
“I think it’s something so wonderful that we are able to do,” he added.
Additional reporting by Lisa Finn. Produced by Peggy Spellman Hoey, Lisa Finn, David Allen and Peggy Bayard.