Trans World Airlines Flight 800 (TWA 800), a Boeing 747-100, exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, New York, on July 17, 1996, at about 8:31 PM EDT, 12 minutes after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport on a scheduled international passenger flight to Rome, with a stopover in Paris. All 230 people on board were killed, the third-deadliest aviation accident to occur in U.S. territory.
While accident investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) traveled to the scene, arriving the following morning, there was much initial speculation that a terrorist attack was the cause of the crash. Consequently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) initiated a parallel criminal investigation. Sixteen months later the FBI announced that no evidence had been found of a criminal act and closed its active investigation.
The four-year NTSB investigation concluded with the approval of the Aircraft Accident Report on August 23, 2000, ending the most extensive, complex, and costly air disaster investigation in United States history. The report's conclusion was that the probable cause of the accident was an explosion of flammable fuel/air vapors in a fuel tank, and, although it could not be determined with certainty, the most likely cause of the explosion was a short circuit. As a result of the investigation, new requirements were developed for aircraft to prevent future fuel tank explosions.
Many TWA Flight 800 alternative theories exist, the most prevalent being that a missile strike from a terrorist or U.S. Navy vessel caused the crash, and is the subject of a government coverup
The accident airplane, registration N93119, was manufactured by Boeing in July 1971, it was ordered by Eastern Airlines, but after Eastern canceled their 747 orders, it was purchased new by TWA. The aircraft had completed 16,869 flights with 93,303 hours of operation. On the day of the accident the airplane departed Athens, Greece, as TWA Flight 881, and arrived at the gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) about 16:38. The aircraft was refueled, and there was a crew change; the new flight crew consisted of Captain Ralph G. Kevorkian, Captain/Check Airman Steven E. Snyder, and Flight Engineer/Check Airman Richard G. Campbell (all with more than 30 years employment at TWA), and flight engineer trainee Oliver Krick, who was starting the sixth leg of his initial operating experience training.
Because of technical problems with the thrust reverser sensors during the landing of TWA 881 at JFK, prior to flight 800 the ground-maintenance crew locked-out the thrust reverser for engine #3 (treated as a minimum equipment list item). In addition, severed cables for the engine #3 thrust reverser were replaced. During refueling of the aircraft, the volumetric shutoff (VSO) control was believed to have been triggered before the tanks were full. To continue the pressure fueling, a TWA mechanic overrode the automatic VSO by pulling the volumetric fuse and an overflow circuit breaker. Maintenance records indicate that the airplane had numerous VSO-related maintenance writeups in the weeks before the accident.
TWA 800 was scheduled to depart JFK for Paris around 19:00, but the flight was delayed until 20:02 by a disabled piece of ground equipment and a passenger/baggage mismatch. After the owner of the baggage in question was confirmed to be on board, the flight crew prepared for departure and the aircraft pushed back from gate 27 at the TWA Flight Center.
Flight path of TWA 800. The colored rectangles are areas from which wreckage was recovered.
TWA 800 then received a series of heading changes and generally increasing altitude assignments as it climbed to its intended cruising altitude. Weather in the area was light winds with scattered clouds, and there were dusk lighting conditions. The last radio transmission from the airplane occurred at 20:30 when the flight crew received and then acknowledged instructions from New York Center to climb to 15,000 feet (4,600 m). The last recorded radar transponder return from the airplane was recorded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) radar site at Trevose, Pennsylvania at 20:31:12.
Thirty-eight seconds later, the captain of an Eastwind Airlines Boeing 737 reported to Boston ARTCC that he "just saw an explosion out here", adding, "we just saw an explosion up ahead of us here...about 16,000 feet [4,900m] or something like that, it just went down into the water." Subsequently, many air traffic control facilities in the New York/Long Island area received reports of an explosion from other pilots operating in the area. Many witnesses in the vicinity of the crash stated that they saw or heard explosions, accompanied by a large fireball or fireballs over the ocean, and observed debris, some of which was burning, falling into the water.
Although individuals in various civilian, military, and police vessels reached the crash site and searched for survivors within minutes of the initial water impact, no survivors were found, making TWA 800 the second deadliest aircraft accident in the United States at that time.
Air traffic control recording
Eastwind Airlines Flight 507
The captain of Eastwind Airlines 507 further describes to air traffic control what he saw both after and prior to the explosion
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The NTSB was notified about 20:50 the day of the accident; a full go-team was assembled in Washington, D.C. and arrived on scene early the next morning. Meanwhile, initial witness descriptions led many to believe the cause of the crash was a bomb or surface-to-air missile attack. The NTSB does not investigate criminal activity. In past investigations, once it was established that a crash was, in fact, a criminal act, the FBI had become the lead federal investigative body, with the NTSB providing any requested support. In the case of TWA 800, the FBI initiated a parallel criminal investigation alongside the NTSB's accident investigation.
Search and recovery operations
Search and recovery operations were conducted by federal, state, and local agencies, as well as government contractors. Remote-operated vehicles (ROVs), side-scan sonar, and laser line-scanning equipment were used to search for and investigate underwater debris fields. Victims and wreckage were recovered by Scuba divers and ROVs; later scallop trawlers were used to recover wreckage embedded in the ocean floor. In one of the largest diver-assisted salvage operations ever conducted, often working in very difficult and dangerous conditions, over 95% of the airplane wreckage was eventually recovered. The search and recovery effort identified three main areas of wreckage underwater. The yellow zone, red zone, and green zone contained wreckage from front, center, and rear sections of the airplane, respectively. The green zone with the aft portion of the aircraft was located the furthest along the flight path.