Paying respects, one last time, to TWA Flight 800
The wreckage of the jumbo jet, painfully reconstructed, sits as a reminder of what happens when things go terribly wrong.
Behind a door warning of no photos, the massive plane takes away one's breath.
The destruction is horrifying. Hundreds of pieces patched back together. Hundreds more never recovered.
Then it hits you: this isn’t just scraps of a Boeing 747. This is all that is left of an accident that took the lives of 230 passengers and crew.
It’s been nearly 25 years since the crash of TWA Flight 800. The plane was heading from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris on July 17, 1996.
The flight would only last 12 minutes.
As the 747 climbed to an altitude of 13,700 feet, the aircraft broke apart. Debris rained down onto the Atlantic Ocean for nearly 20 minutes.
I still remember watching on live TV as a small armada of government boats and local fishing vessels raced out to the scene. Parts floated on the water, with the highly flammable jet fuel still burning.
The accident came at a time when Americans were on edge over plane crashes and hijackings. It had been less than a decade since the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Just three years earlier, terrorists had exploded a 1,200-pound bomb in a Ryder truck parked below New York’s World Trade Center.
Speculation raged that a bomb — or even a missile attack — had brought down TWA 800.
The National Transportation Safety Board decided to take the highly unusual step of reconstructing the plane to ensure it had the right cause.
After four and a half years, the NTSB determined that a mix of air and jet fuel vapors in the central fuel tank exploded, most likely ignited by a short circuit outside the tank.
And that’s where this story would have normally ended. The government concluded its investigation, made suggestions that eventually became regulations and helped usher in one of the safest periods for commercial aviation.
But unlike other wrecks that were eventually returned to airlines or insurance companies, TWA 800 was moved to an NTSB training warehouse outside Washington, D.C.
Throughout the years, thousands of crash investigators, FBI agents, airline executives and others have seen the wreckage. It’s been a training tool for new inspectors and one to help people grasp the severity of such a tragedy.
Media and the general public have not been able to see the plane.
Now, nearly 25 years after the crash, the government is planning to dismantle TWA 800 and destroy the pieces. (The NTSB is moving out of its current training facility located on the George Washington University's suburban Virginia campus where the reconstruction is kept. The center averaged a $2.5 million annual deficit since the fiscal year 2015.)
TPG was one of the few media outlets allowed into the Virginia hangar to see the plane one final time.
The government’s lease on the training center in Ashburn, Virginia expires in two years. The NTSB — along with the rest of the world — had to adapt to a virtual training due to COVID-19. So this seemed like the appropriate time to destroy the remains of the plane, Sharon Bryson, the NTSB managing director, told TPG.
"It was a tough decision," Bryson said. "I offered one of the very first courses that ever happened here in this building, teaching in the transportation disaster assistance program."
The investigation into Flight 800 helped push the NTSB's creditability around the globe. But it also helped create clear working rules between when the NTSB takes the lead vs. the FBI.
Bryson said the accident showed the need for the government to be unified to halt any conspiracy thoughts early.
"I think people have a natural tendency to want to figure it out. And a lot of that is what you hear. And so, you know, conspiracy theory, alternate theory, we can call them whatever we want to want to," she said. "But I do believe that people are better off when we, as a government, are coordinated."
The wreckage of TWA 800 will not be moved to a museum or kept in any way. The NTSB plans to take a digital scan of it and then have everything destroyed in what they're calling a "certified destruction."
For the families, there is a proper memorial in New York's Smith Point County Park, just past Fire Island.
"They see that as more of the place that they memorialize and think about family members," Bryson said. She had worked with the families in 2003 to bring the wreckage to Virginia. "They only wanted it to be used for training. They did not want it to be sensationalized or some sort of a museum piece."
And with that, the NTSB is saying goodbye to the reconstruction. "We knew at some point that this day would come and we believe it's really served a purpose," Bryson remarked.