25 Years Ago Today, TWA Flight 800 Exploded Over the Atlantic

Investigation of Crash ‘Fundamentally Changed the Way Aircraft Are Designed’

By Anna Breuer on 17 July 2021
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Twenty-five years ago, TWA Flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on July 17, 1996, 12 minutes after taking off from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. All 230 people onboard the Boeing 747-100 perished. The investigation revealed that a fuel tank explosion was the cause of the crash.

On Saturday, a private memorial service for the families of those lost on the flight is being held. The service will take place that evening in Smith Point Park – a beachfront park overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the east end of Fire Island along the central south shore of Long Island.

At precisely 8:31 p.m. local time, an explosion that was ultimately determined to have been caused by a spark from fuel gauge wiring, inside the center wing fuel tank of the 747, which in turn caused a huge explosion that split the plane in two about 15,000 feet over the Atlantic, some 8 miles (13 kilometers) south of the beaches that flank the East Moriches inlet.

The reconstructed Boeing 747 wreckage sits some 260 miles (419 kilometers) away at the National Transportation Safety Board’s training center in Ashburn, Virginia.  The agency, until last week, had been using the salvaged wreckage in accident investigation training courses and is set to decommission and destroy it in the coming months.

The Jumbo Jet had 212 passengers and 18 crew members on board at the time of the crash. The roster included 16 students and five chaperones from the Montoursville Area High School French Club in Pennsylvania; Jed Johnson, an interior designer who was Andy Warhol’s partner of 12 years; Rico Puhlmann, a German fashion photographer; and David Hogan, an American composer.

One passenger who was supposed to be on board, Eileen Rence of Appleton, Wisconsin, missed the flight by minutes thanks to weather delays in the Midwest.  She did not immediately realize the significance of her late arrival until she telephoned a friend who then informed her of the news.  “I can’t rejoice while others are feeling so terrible,” she told the New York Times at the time, speaking from the Ramada Inn near JFK where relatives of the victims were gathering.

The passenger, just an hour earlier, had been waiting to board in the TWA Flight Center, the storied airline’s Eero Saarinen-designed terminal at JFK, perhaps sitting in the airline’s lounge, the Ambassador Club, or one of its three restaurants, the Constellation Club, the Lisbon Lounge, and the Paris Café.

FBT Editorial Director remembers the night of the crash as if it were yesterday.

“I was driving home and – since it was the pre-Internet radio days – was listening to WCBS Newsradio 88 when the news broke and the network preempted local programming.  I pulled over to listen to the report and had a sinking feeling in my stomach.”
“I didn’t know it at the time, but a friend and neighbor of mine as well as of the late Greg Spira, this magazine’s co-founder, was on the flight.  Eric Holst and his wife were on their way to Paris for the wedding of his brother Troy, another friend.

The in-air disaster prompted the largest investigation of an aviation crash in U.S. history, and the findings led federal officials to require airlines to pump inert gas into empty fuel tanks, making them less likely to ignite.

In February, the National Transportation Safety Board said it would destroy the reconstruction of the Boeing 747 that had been painstakingly salvaged from the ocean floor. The wreckage was first used to investigate the cause of the crash and, later on, after being moved to a warehouse in Virginia, to train plane crash investigators.

The warehouse containing the reconstructed aircraft was closed to the public but families of the victims were allowed to visit over the years.  Before the massive 747 is dismantled, the agency will document the reconstructing using 3-D scanning.

The move comes as the lease on the warehouse nears its end and the destruction of the wreckage is in accordance with an agreement it made with survivors of the victims of the explosion, one of the deadliest plane crashes in U.S. history, albeit one that resulted in safer flying as a result of the investigation.

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

Kurt Stolz contributed reporting to this story.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

Accura News

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