Recovery Operation - Loss of TWA 800

Photo depicing a U.S. Navy recovery operation on the ocean floor after the crash of TWA 800

On the 17th of July, 1996, a Boeing 747 owned by TWA and bearing tail number N93119 was en route to Paris from JFK airport. The flight had departed New York's main international airport around 8:19 PM local time.

Aboard the plane were 230 people:

  • 2 pilots
  • 2 flight engineers
  • 14 flight attendants
  • 212 passengers

Among the passengers were 16 students—members of the French Club at Montoursville (Pennsylvania) High School—and their 5 adult chaperones. (They later were the inspiration for the characters in "Final Destination," a film released in 2000.)

Just before 8:30 PM local time—at precisely 2029:15—Captain Ralph G. Kevorkian noticed something strange. The cockpit voice recorder tells us what he said:

Look at that crazy fuel flow indicator there on number four ... see that? (NTSB Accident Report, at page 20 of the online PDF version.)

About two minutes later—at precisely 2031:12—the cockpit voice recording abruptly ended.

At about the same time, the captain of another airplane in the area—a Boeing 737 operated by Eastwind Airlines as Stinger Bee Flight 507—reported that he saw an explosion:

According to the Boston ARTCC [Air Route Traffic Control Center] transcript, at 2031:50, the captain of an Eastwind Airlines Boeing 737 (Stinger Bee flight 507) reported that he “just saw an explosion out here.”

About 10 seconds later, the captain of Stinger Bee flight 507 further advised, “we just saw an explosion up ahead of us here … about 16,000 feet or something like that, it just went down into the water.” Subsequently, many ATC [air traffic control] facilities in the New York/Long Island area received reports of an explosion from other pilots operating in the area. (See NTSB Report at page 21 of the online PDF version.)

While TWA 800 was south of Long Island, and still in U.S. air space, the 747 sustained a catastrophic explosion and in-flight breakup. The front part of the plane, including the nose, was completely severed from the rest of the aircraft.

The plane then fell into the water, near the Long Island hamlet of East Moriches, killing everyone on board (if they were not already deceased as a result of multiple disasters occuring as the plane exploded, then broke apart).

The NTSB (National Transportation and Safety Board) began its investigation immediately after the disaster. Among other things, the agency's investigators retrieved as many parts of N93119 as possible. Those parts were reassembled while the investigation continued (as demonstrated in this photo, taken on 20 May 1997, which is included in the NTSB Report as Exhibit 29 located at page 120 of the online PDF).


Although it takes at least a year, normally, for the NTSB to issue its "Probable Cause Report" on airplane crashes, the agency did not issue its report on TWA 800 until August 23, 2000 (a bit more than four years after the disaster). The following "probable cause" appears in the NTSB Report for TWA 800:

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the TWA flight 800 accident was an explosion of the center wing fuel tank (CWT), resulting from ignition of the flammable fuel/air mixture in the tank.

The source of ignition energy for the explosion could not be determined with certainty, but, of the sources evaluated by the investigation, the most likely was a short circuit outside of the CWT that allowed excessive voltage to enter it through electrical wiring associated with the fuel quantity indication system.

Contributing factors to the accident were the design and certification concept that fuel tank explosions could be prevented solely by precluding all ignition sources and the design and certification of the Boeing 747 with heat sources located beneath the CWT with no means to reduce the heat transferred into the CWT or to render the fuel vapor in the tank nonflammable.

Not everyone agrees with this probable cause. Among other theories is that the plane was struck by a surface-to-air (SAM) missile, fired by the U.S. military, which mistakenly hit the TWA flight.

The plane split apart during the accident cycle. The nose area—including the flight deck and first/business class—broke apart first (according to the NTSB investigation). This NTSB animation depicts how investigators believe the catastrophe happened (from the time of an explosion to the time the fuselage entered the water):

Hundreds of witnesses on the ground saw/heard what was happening. The NTSB provides an overview of those statements:

Many witnesses in the vicinity of the accident at the time that it occurred stated that they saw and/or heard explosions, accompanied by a large fireball over the ocean, and observed debris, some of which was burning, falling to the water.

According to witness documents, about one-third of these witnesses reported that they observed a streak of light, resembling a flare, moving upward in the sky to the point where a large fireball appeared. Several witnesses reported seeing this fireball split into two fireballs as it descended toward the water. (See NTSB Report, at page 21 of the online PDF version.)

The NTSB also created an animation to depict how witnesses on the ground would have viewed the disaster as it unfolded that summer evening:

Because the plane broke apart, in-flight, the debris was not all in the same place. The NTSB Report tells us where the wreckage was found:

Pieces of the airplane wreckage were discovered floating on and beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean about 8 miles south of East Moriches, New York. The main wreckage was found on the ocean floor, between 40° 37’ 42” and 40° 40’ 12” north latitude and 72° 40’ 48” and 72° 35’ 38” west longitude. The accident occurred in dusk lighting conditions. (See NTSB Report at page 22 of the online PDF version.)

This map—Figure 21 from the NTSB report (located at page 82 of the online PDF version—visually depicts the location of the accident and shows where the split-apart plane entered the water.


The NTSB color-coded the three separate parts of the broken plane—Figure 22b, at page 85 of the online PDF version—then matched those areas to the three separate debris fields—Figure 22c, at page 86 of the PDF—where divers found corresponding pieces of wreckage.



In the image at the top of this page, we see the photo of a Navy diver scouring a debris field, on the ocean floor, after the non-survivable crash of TWA 800.

Eighteen years later, to the day, another airplane was tragically lost in-flight. While controversy still exists about the loss of TWA 800—and whether it was shot down by a missle—there is no doubt at all about the act which doomed Flight MH17. It was shot out of the sky and every person, on board the flight, died. 

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5156stories and lessons created

Original Release: Dec 08, 2016

Updated Last Revision: Apr 15, 2019

Media Credits

Image of Navy diver online, courtesy the U.S. Naval Institute website.


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"Recovery Operation - Loss of TWA 800" AwesomeStories.com. Dec 08, 2016. Apr 21, 2019.
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