National

Wreckage of TWA Flight 800 to be destroyed 25 years after explosion

The National Transportation Safety Board said it no longer needed to use a reconstruction of the plane brought down in one of the deadliest crashes in U.S. history.

Wreckage recovered from TWA Flight 800 is assembled inside a hangar in Calverton, N.Y. on July 11, 1997. Vic DeLucia/The New York Times

Twenty-five years ago, a Boeing 747 flying from New York City to Paris exploded in midair and broke apart just off the coast of Long Island. All 230 people on board the plane, Trans World Airlines Flight 800, were killed, and the wreckage plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean.

In the lengthy investigation that followed, the National Transportation Safety Board had workers salvage the remains from the ocean floor and painstakingly reconstruct the plane. When they finished, the reconstruction was moved to a warehouse in Virginia, where it has been used to train plane crash investigators for nearly two decades.

But with the lease on the warehouse nearing its end, the agency announced plans Monday to decommission and destroy the remaining wreckage from one of the deadliest plane crashes in U.S. history.

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The destruction will erase some of the last physical traces of an expensive, four-year investigation that concluded electrical failure brought down the plane — a finding disputed by conspiracy theorists who believed a missile was responsible— and that had a lasting impact.

“The investigation of the crash of TWA Flight 800 is a seminal moment in aviation safety history,” the safety board’s managing director, Sharon Bryson, said in a statement. “From that investigation, we issued safety recommendations that fundamentally changed the way aircraft are designed.”

The decision will also remove one of the most tangible links that loved ones have to the victims of the accident. While the reconstruction is closed to the public, the victims’ families have been allowed to visit over the years.

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Heidi Snow Cinader, whose fiancé, Michel Breistroff, died in the crash, said that some had left flowers or other mementos on the seats where their family members spent their last minutes.

Cinader did not criticize the board’s decision, although she said the site played a crucial role in providing a physical space that allowed families to grieve.

“Knowing that it’s there was always comforting,” said Cinader, who leads a nonprofit that provides grief support for those who have lost loved ones in air accidents.

The safety board said that recent developments in its investigative techniques, including technologies like 3D scanning and drone imagery, made the reconstruction less crucial to its training program. It will stop using the reconstruction July 7, 10 days before the 25th anniversary of the crash, which took place July 17, 1996.

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On that day, 212 people and 18 crew members boarded the Boeing 747 at Kennedy International Airport for an evening flight to Paris. The plane, built in 1971, had arrived from Athens without incident that afternoon.

The flight took off at 8:19 p.m., around dusk, in fairly clear weather. Twelve minutes later, it blew apart in the sky, about 10 miles south of Long Island.

Witnesses in the area, many of whom were outside on a muggy summer night, reported seeing an explosion and, in some cases, a blazing fireball over the Atlantic as debris showered from the sky.

The horrifying crash gripped the world. Almost immediately, there was speculation that it had been a terrorist attack, a theory bolstered when some witnesses told authorities that they thought they saw a flare or a missile heading toward the plane just before the explosion.

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The next day, as investigators began recovering debris from the water, federal officials said they believed an explosive device was most likely the cause of the accident, and the FBI treated its inquiry as a criminal investigation.

But just as swiftly, the safety board urged caution, saying it had no physical evidence from the airplane that pointed to foul play. Board officials declined to speculate on a cause, saying they would issue a report after further investigation.

What followed was the longest and most costly investigation in the agency’s history. Over the next year, workers searching for the source of the explosion pulled tons of wreckage from the water, then sorted it in an effort to identify parts of the Boeing plane.

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Although they recovered about 95% of the plane, investigators never found a clear answer in the wreckage. But they believed that evidence might be easier to find if the plane were reassembled.

So for months, more than 30 workers meticulously rebuilt the plane’s fuselage inside a warehouse on Long Island, a huge reconstruction effort they called “jetosaurus rex.” The finished product was 93 feet long and weighed about 65,000 pounds.

It was only after four years and an inquiry that cost about $40 million that the safety board issued a report in 2000 that found no evidence of an attack and instead blamed the electrical failure, which they said had ignited a nearly empty fuel tank.

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The report eventually led federal officials to require airlines to pump inert gas into tanks, making them less flammable.

Even after the report was approved, its conclusion was disputed by witnesses who insisted they had seen a missile and by conspiracy theorists who said the plane had been shot down by friendly fire.

With its investigation concluded, the safety board was left to decide what to do with the wreckage, which it sought to preserve in part to train future investigators. Ultimately, it moved the reconstruction to a training center in Ashburn, Virginia.

As part of that decision, the board made an agreement with the family members of the crash victims, promising the wreckage would never be put on public display. In its statement Monday, the board said it was destroying the wreckage in order to honor that agreement.

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Christopher O’Neil, a spokesperson for the board, said that the victims’ relatives had been told before the announcement was made that the board had decided to dismantle the reconstruction. He said the wreckage would be dismantled and destroyed by a federal contractor before December 2022.

Cinader acknowledged that losing the reconstruction might be difficult for families who went there regularly.

“It’s been a very important resource for all of us who went through it,” she said. “And I feel like it served a very valuable purpose.”

Before dismantling the plane, the agency will use 3D scanning to document the reconstruction and create a historical record.

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