Associated Retired Aviation Professionals

Sunday July 15 1:02 PM ET 

Questions Remain from Flight 800 Crash

By PAT MILTON, Associated Press Writer 

EAST MORICHES, N.Y. (AP) - Five years after TWA Flight 800 exploded and lit up the summer night sky like fireworks, much remains unresolved.

Airline safety improvements, lawsuits filed by families of the 230 victims, even a monument to those who died - all are still pending.

Yet as the fifth anniversary approaches on Tuesday, the legacy of the disaster is finally taking shape.

``A lot of good things are coming out of this crash,'' said John Clark, director of aviation safety for the National Transportation Safety Board (news - web sites). ``We have learned a lot from Flight 800 about tanks, fuel, explosive capabilities and aging wiring.''

Those who lost family and friends have learned a lot, too, as they rebuild their lives. They will gather to mark the anniversary Tuesday along with local residents who responded to the crash.

``There is a bonding, a common thread that will probably always hold us together,'' said Cyndi Hurd, of Severn, Md., whose 29-year-old brother, Jamie, was on the flight to Paris. She and her father, Jim, plan to attend the candlelight tribute at Smith Point Beach, near where the plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island.

``It's very comforting,'' Hurd said. ``You also get to see the local townspeople, the people who volunteered, the divers and investigators.''

A black granite memorial is being built by the families on a bluff overlooking the sea to honor both the victims and those who responded to help. It is due to be completed by next year's anniversary.

Hurd said she has honored her brother's wish that she return to college to study psychology. She will pursue a doctorate and plans to use her education, and experience, to counsel those grieving from tragedies. ``That is Jamie's gift to me,'' she said.

Lessons from the crash were slowed by the yearslong mystery surrounding the July 17, 1996, midair disaster. The blast in the sky off this fishing village was so spectacular that some people mistook it for fireworks.

Threats of terrorism worldwide just before the explosion charged the atmosphere. But as hundreds of FBI (news - web sites) agents eliminated one criminal theory after another, the National Transportation Safety Board and private aviation experts determined the cause was mechanical.

Last August the NTSB (news - web sites) formally concluded that Flight 800 was destroyed by a center fuel tank explosion, likely caused by a spark from a short-circuit in the plane's wiring that ignited the tank's volatile vapors.

``The vapors are the heart of the matter. We are not going to be satisfied until we control the explosive nature of the tanks,'' Clark said.

In May, the Federal Aviation Administration (news - web sites) ruled that new airplanes must be designed to minimize the chances fuel vapors in the tanks will ignite.

Air conditioning units, for example, may have to be relocated from underneath the fuel tanks. The units underneath the center fuel tank on Flight 800 are believed to have cooked the vapors inside the tank during the aircraft's two-hour delay at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport - making them ripe for explosion from a spark.

The FAA has ordered manufacturers to review the designs of airplane fuel systems, and airlines to develop new maintenance plans. The reviews will take 18 months.

In court, there also is some progress. Mitch Baumeister, an attorney who represents more than 20 families of Flight 800 victims in lawsuits against Boeing and TWA, said many of the claims are now being settled.

Last week, the families of 19 students and adult chaperones with the Montoursville, Pa., high school french club who perished in the crash reached a settlement providing $2.5 million apiece.

Yet money offers no solace. Joe Lychner, of Houston, lost his wife and two young girls in the disaster. He has remarried now and has a 16-month-old child named Rachel Hope.

``I have my memories and I am the only one who can keep them alive,'' he said. ``What has changed now is that I am able to think more about the good times instead of what happened.

``The only thing I can do is pray for peace,'' he said. ``I have not found it yet.''


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