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FLIGHT 800: HORROR IN THE SKY | COLUMN ONE

Flight 800: Anatomy of Tragedy

From the moment rescuers first descended on the fiery scene off Long Island, there was only horror. Law enforcement, military officials and doctors battle their emotions to find answers.

July 29, 1996

EAST MORICHES, N.Y. — In the beginning, against the odds, against all practical reason, they elected to hope.

Offshore, dusk had begun to fall. Lt. Kevin Dunn, commander of the 110-foot Coast Guard patrol boat Adak, was talking to a fishing boat on the radio telephone when he saw "a huge fireball and a line of flames, bigger than fireworks, bigger than any flare."

"I'm coming up to 30 knots," Dunn announced over the ship's intercom, the Coast Guard equivalent of "battle stations." Then he pointed the Adak's bow toward the conflagration and ordered his crew to pull together emergency medical kits, blankets, food and drinking water for survivors.

Several miles away, at a marina nestled on the bank of Mud Creek, Ed Probst and his buddies had gathered in the broad cockpit of Probst's 29-foot Luhrs sportfishing boat to consider the fine points of "chunking tuna." When word spread along the docks that a plane had gone down offshore, Probst's friends hurriedly gathered portable spotlights, boat hooks and extra life jackets from nearby boats while he prepared to cast off.

Mud Creek, thick with docks and moorings, is a "no wake" zone with a 5 mph speed limit, but Probst considered only a moment before thrusting down the throttles on the Luhr's twin 350-horsepower engines. In minutes, the South Bound had cleared the channel and joined a Dunkirk-like flotilla of boats of every size and description, all racing to the rescue.

"My boat will do 30 miles an hour at full throttle and we were going 30 that night," he said later.

The hopes that led the fishermen to gather up extra life jackets, like those that moved the Adak's crew to assemble medical kits and blankets--did not survive long in the reality they found. The smoke and flames that lay over the water were a curtain over the gates of perdition. None who entered were fully prepared for what awaited them.

Two white gloves floating side by side, looking at first like someone's hands. The plane's rudder rising and falling with the swell, tail number and a painted American flag shining out of the gloom. Helicopters swarming so close to the surface that Dunn repeatedly ordered them back so the boats could maneuver. A welter of clothing, luggage, paper cups, seat cushions, shapeless objects so thick it looked as though "someone had dumped a landfill," one volunteer said. And the bodies, some so torn that rescuers were embarrassed to be looking at them and others seemingly unmarked--staring up from the water, eyes open but life gone away.

"When we first got there, we didn't see any bodies," Coast Guardsman Jeff Ruggieri, 27, of Hemet, Calif., recalled. "Then you saw one. Then another. They were just floating there. . . . I thought a lot about my wife and two kids." Someone on Probst's boat began to shout, "It looks like a kid. It looks like a kid," and Probst remembered hoping it wasn't.

There would be no dramatic rescues to send the heart soaring this night.

Only frightful evidence of the fragility of the human body, the flotsam and jetsam thrown up when ordinary lives are interrupted, sights rescuers knew even then would return and return in their minds--unbidden, unwelcome.

And looming over everything was the dreadful thought that all this might not be an incomprehensible act of God, just tragic happenstance. It might, instead, have been a patiently planned and achieved act of other human beings. "Terrorism," in the mind-bending shorthand of the age.

The destruction of TWA Flight 800 at 8:31.10 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time on July 17, 1996, snapped off the lives of 230 passengers and crew. It tore irreparable holes in the lives of relatives and friends. It catapulted hundreds of government officials, political leaders, law enforcement agents, aviation experts and others into an ordeal that would test not only professional skill but personal judgment and character as well.

For investigators at least, Flight 800 began the day before as Flight 881, departing Hellenikon International Airport in Athens for New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport at 8:40 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, July 17. An officer on that flight later said security seemed tight, and Greek government officials said passengers' identification was checked, hand luggage examined and additional protective steps taken by a private security firm.

But Athens, with its proximity to the Middle East and its diverse population, had always been a potential trouble spot. In March, the Federal Aviation Administration had cited Hellenikon for failing to meet adequate security standards, although the warning was lifted in May.

In any event, the flight to JFK appeared uneventful and nothing out of the ordinary was recorded during the hours that the venerable 747, first commissioned in 1971, spent on the ground after landing. True, the scheduled 7 p.m. departure from New York was delayed by a small mechanical problem and a mix-up matching a piece of luggage with a passenger.

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