“God bless him,” said one shaken pilot as recognition set in that July night that a Boeing jumbo jet had just exploded outside New York.
The remark was captured on tape recordings of conversations between the air traffic controller and planes in the area on July 17, 1996, the night TWA Flight 800 blew up and killed all 230 people aboard.
The recordings, which have been under analysis by accident investigators, were made public Wednesday by the Federal Aviation Administration.
A final determination remains to be made, but investigators say the plane appears to have been downed by an explosion in its center fuel tank, probably the result of mechanical failure.
The Boeing 747 jumbo jet en route from New York to Paris exploded at about 8:31 p.m. Eastern time, shortly after the controller at the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center had directed the pilot to begin climbing to 15,000 feet from 13,000 feet.
At 8:31:50, Eastwind Flight 507 told the controller: “We just saw an explosion out here.”
Among many routine transmissions on the tape, there were these:
8:32:01, Eastwind Flight 507: “Ah, we just saw an explosion up ahead of us … It just went down - in the water.”
8:32:25, Virgin Atlantic Flight 009: “I can confirm that. … It looked like an explosion out there about five miles away, six miles away.”
8:32:56, Boston air traffic center: “TWA 800, (call) center.”
8:33:04, Boston: “TWA 800, center.”
8:33:09, Boston: “TWA 800, if you hear center ident(ify).”
8:33:17, Boston, to Eastwind 507: “You reported an explosion, is that correct, sir?”
8:33:21, Eastwind 507: “Yes sir, about five miles. …” 8:33:36, Alitalia Flight 609: “For your information, sir, we are just overhead the explosion, right overhead at this time, now 103 miles from JFK (airport).”
8:33:48, Eastwind 507: “We are directly over the site with that airplane or whatever it was just exploded and went into the water.”
8:34:01, Boston: “TWA 800, center. TWA eight-zero-zero, if you hear center ident.”
8:35:36, Boston: “TWA 800, center.”
8:35:43, unknown: “I think that was him.”
8:35:45, Boston: “I think so.”
8:35:48, unknown: “God bless him.”
8:37:05, Eastwind 507: “So long. … Anything we can do before we go?”
8:37:11, Boston: “Well, I want to confirm that you saw the splash in the water.”
8:37:20, Eastwind 507: “Yes, sir. It just blew up in the air, and then we saw two fireballs go down to the water. … There seemed to be a light. I, I thought it was a landing light, … and it was coming right at us at, about, I don’t know, about 15,000 feet or something like that, and I pushed my landing lights, ah, you know, so I saw him, and then it blew.”
8:37:40, Boston: “Roger that, sir, that was a 747 out there you had a visual on that. Anything else in the area when it happened?”
8:37:47, Eastwind 507: “I didn’t see anything. He seemed to be (alone). I thought it had a landing light on, maybe it was a fire, I don’t know.”
8:38:08, United Airlines Flight 2: “Is that airplane right in front of us now?”
8:38:12, Boston: “He should be right underneath you. …” 8:38:18, United 2: “It’s still burning down there.”
8:38:20, Boston: “In the water.”
8:38:21, United 2: “Well, there’s bright red, and there’s smoke coming up. … Fire with smoke coming out of the water.”