Families of TWA 800 victims remember crash on 10th anniversary
SHIRLEY, N.Y. – On a steamy afternoon similar to the day 10 years ago when they hugged their loved ones for the last time, relatives of the 230 people who died in a fireball aboard TWA Flight 800 gathered Monday to dedicate the final piece of a memorial to the victims and the rescuers who raced in vain to the crash site.At a park that is the closest piece of land to where the jet exploded, an expansive memorial was completed Monday with the dedication of an abstract black granite sculpture called “The Light.” The sculpture was designed by Henry Seaman, whose cousin died in the crash, and is the centerpiece of the TWA 800 memorial at Smith Point County Park.Victims’ families had placed wedding rings, teddy bears and other mementos in a sealed vault under the sculpture, along with the last unclaimed property from the crash of the trans-Atlantic flight.It is painful for me to have lost my brother. I think about him every day,” said Christophe Delange of Paris, a computer engineer, whose brother, Sylvain, 35, was an artist. “But it is more painful for my niece. She was 7 years old and losing her father. That’s been very difficult for her to endure.”Also honored Monday were the rescuers who toiled in the search for survivors amid burning jet fuel and mangled bodies during 72 straight hours of work after the crash.John Seaman, head of the TWA Flight 800 Family Association and the uncle of 19-year-old victim Michele Seaman, introduced the rescue effort’s commander – Coast Guard Rear Adm. Tim Sullivan – as the man who represented “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men.””My crew was initially very disappointed, very upset that we failed many of you,” said Sullivan, his voice cracking. Sullivan was the only speaker who received a standing ovation from the audience of about 1,000.Gov. George Pataki and Seaman placed a wreath in front of the sculpture as bagpipers played “Amazing Grace” and “God Bless America.”Only minutes after taking off from Kennedy Airport, TWA Flight 800 to Paris exploded, raining carnage on the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island. Among those killed were 16 high school students from Montoursville, Pa., and five chaperones who were traveling to Paris as part of a French Club trip.Initially, investigators were not sure if the calamity that killed all 230 people aboard on July 17, 1996, was caused by a bomb, a missile or mechanical failure. Following an exhaustive, four-year investigation, officials determined that TWA 800 was destroyed by a center fuel-tank explosion – likely caused by a spark from a short-circuit in the Boeing 747’s wiring that ignited the tank’s volatile vapors.Despite the finding, conspiracy theories linger.”There will always be a segment – although this segment is pretty small – of people who for whatever reasons, they like to keep their names in the news or whatever, who honestly believe in these conspiracy theories,” said Robert Francis, the former vice chairman of the National Transportation Board, who led the investigation and attended the service.Fourteen flags at the entrance of the memorial represent the victims’ nationalities. After the service, the flags were lowered to half-staff in tribute. A large granite wall, similar to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, displays the victims’ names.The memorial garden features stone benches and massive black stone tablets that tell the story of the victims, as well as the rescue workers and boaters who raced to the fiery scene.Visitors can mill quietly through the space, pausing to read engravings on the gray stones such as “Jamie, we miss you Mom and Dad.”Besides the memorial dedication, a prayer service was planned for Monday evening, followed by a candlelight ceremony culminating with a Coast Guard aircraft fly-by and the placement of a memorial wreath in the ocean, said Frank Lombardi, a spokesman for the memorial organizing committee.—Associated Press writer Pat Milton contributed to this report.