A TWA jetliner with 229 people aboard exploded in a fireball shortly after taking off for Paris and plunged into the waters off Long Island on Wednesday night.
The U.S. Coast Guard said there were no survivors, and officials said there was no immediate indication of what had caused the crash. But federal law enforcement authorities said early today that the FBI would take jurisdiction over the case because witnesses had reported an explosion, raising the possibility that a bomb had gone off on the jetliner.
The 747 jet on Flight 800 was bound for Charles de Gaulle Airport from John F. Kennedy Airport when it went into the Atlantic Ocean 20 miles off Moriches Inlet about 8:45 p.m. The site off the island’s south shore is about 40 miles east of New York City.
“It was a big orange fireball. … You saw nothing but flames,” said eyewitness Eileen Daly. “My initial reaction was ‘what is it? … Oh my God, it’s an airplane!”’
Hours after the crash, wreckage and fuel on the water could be seen burning. Helicopters dotted the scene, with some repeatedly going up and down searching for bodies with infrared equipment, while others hovered overhead trying to illuminate the pitch-black water. A temporary morgue was set up on shore.
“We are not finding any survivors,” said Steve Sapp of the Coast Guard. “We are locating lots of bodies out there.”
There were 212 passengers and 17 crew members on the flight, according to Mike Kelly, a TWA vice president. He said the plane had arrived from Athens, Greece, and had been on the ground about three hours before its scheduled 8 p.m. takeoff for Paris. Some of the passengers were from an earlier canceled flight to Rome.
Kelly noted the FAA had been placed on an increased level of security because of the Olympics, which begin Friday in Atlanta, but said there had been no specific threats against TWA or the flight.
“We already had one of the highest levels of security you can have, but that hasn’t changed in the last few weeks,” he said.
Asked about the possibility of a bomb, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Eliot Brenner said “we can’t discuss security issues.” He said the FAA had no information on whether there was a distress call.
Jason Fontana, a cook at John Scott’s Raw Bar in Westhampton Beach, said “it looked like a big fireball with pieces coming off of it. You heard two big explosions, like two big firecrackers going off, just before sunset.”
Coast Guard Lt. Comm. James McPherson said every available aircraft and boat had been sent to the scene, including nine cutters, two helicopters and two planes. A C-130 transport plane was circling the area, dropping parachute flares to illuminate the scene.
Crews were also using infrared night vision goggles to help them spot bodies, McPherson said. With a water temperature of 68 degrees and an air temperature of 73, he estimated that survival would be possible for only 12 hours.
“Our primary effort right now is to look for survivors - we’ll worry about the wreckage later,” said Lt. Kevin Dunn on a cutter at the scene. He said there were no divers in the water.
“The reality of what’s occurred is settling in for the people out there,” said Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “They’re carrying bodies back to shore.”
Dozens of family members began arriving at Kennedy Airport, not speaking to reporters. A group of women burst into tears as they got out of a cab.
In Paris, the large black arrival board at de Gaulle Airport listed Flight 800 as “canceled.” Authorities set up a receiving area for families and friends of those on the flight, and an airline hotline was flooded with calls as the country awoke to the news.
The National Transportation Safety Board put together a team to send to the crash scene.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said an around-the-clock task force also has been set up, particularly because foreign nationals were involved, and the United States wanted to keep in touch with their governments.
President Clinton was briefed Wednesday night about the crash, but the White House issued no formal statements from him.
Brenner said the plane was a Boeing 747-100, an early model of the giant airliner, first produced in 1970. It can carry as many as 450 passengers.
The crash was the second major airline disaster in slightly more than two months, following the May 11 crash in Florida of a ValuJet DC-9. All 110 people aboard that plane died when it crashed into Florida’s Everglades.
The worst air disaster blamed on a bomb occurred on Dec. 21, 1988, when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on a flight from London to New York. That crash killed 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground.
TWA, which has been in and out of bankruptcy court twice in recent years, had reported earlier Wednesday that its economic woes were over.