TWA FLIGHT 800

By Shawn Vredenburg

 

 

 

 

A Coast Guardsman’s story of experiencing the death of TWA Flight 800

 

On July 13th 1996 the USCGC ADAK (WPB-1333) got underway after a five week maintenance period, during which I had married my wife, taken a short honeymoon, and moved her and my three new stepchildren to the ADAK’s homeport of Sandy Hook, NJ.  On this first separation from my new wife and family, the ADAK was expecting to be gone for four days for a routine fisheries enforcement patrol off of the New Jersey coast.

 

The fisheries patrol followed the same standard routine that the crew was used to: Reveille before dawn; finding commercial fishing boats; hailing them on the radio to find out what they were fishing for and when they were last boarded; the boarding team getting suited up; sending the Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) over the side of the ADAK to ferry the boarding team to the fishing boat; inspecting the safety gear, fishing gear, and the catch in the hold; the RHIB ride back to the ADAK; completing the paperwork after the boarding; and then doing it all over again until sunset.

 

Reveille was sounded a bit earlier on July17th. I rolled out of my rack looking forward to getting home that evening to see my new wife. The CO of the ADAK, LT Kevin Dunn, had positioned the ADAK several miles upswell of a group of fishing boats. He wanted to get a boarding team on board before they knew the Coast Guard was in the area. If they were fishing illegally we would catch them before they haul in their nets and hide the evidence. By 0400 I was riding on the RHIB heading towards the distant lights of the fishing boats. As we approached the nearest one we saw she was a scallop fishing boat, and it was obvious they hadn’t seen us yet. Undetected, we came alongside her and I climbed over her rail and onto her deck, announcing myself “U.S. Coast Guard”. Thus began what was supposed to be the last day of our patrol.

 

Sixteen and a half hours later, I had just returned to the ADAK from inspecting the fourth fishing boat of the day. After briefing the Captain on the boarding, I had gone to the 8-man berthing in the back of the ADAK to take off my fish stained uniform and climb into the shower. I was due on the bridge to take the watch but was sure the CO would throw me off the bridge if he caught whiff of me. I was just taking off my boots when I heard the CO on the ships intercom reporting we would be coming up to full speed for a plane crash fifteen miles away.

 

As I feLT the ADAK come up to her maximum speed of 30 knots, I made the most heartfeLT prayer I have ever made. I prayed to God and asked for this to be another small plane. I had responded to two other plane crashes in my career, and both of them were small planes. In the first crash, both people in the plane died. But in the second crash, all four people survived uninjured.

 

I quickly jumped through the shower, thinking it was going to be a long night and I didn’t want to smell this bad all night. While I was in the shower, I continued to pray that this was a small plane, or another false alarm. I dressed as fast as I could and headed to the bridge to get the full scoop.

 

As I arrived on the bridge, the sun was just setting, and I could see the smoke and flames on the ocean surface miles away. The CO, along with EM1 Robert Hill, had seen the plane explode and fall to the ocean. Over the radio, I heard Coast Guard Group Moriches report that the FAA had lost a Boeing 747 airliner from their radarscopes. I stared ahead at the devastation, and couldn’t believe what I saw. It didn’t look real.

 

It was beginning to get dark as I went down to the deck to make preparations. BM2 Jeff Ruggieri ensured the RHIB was ready for action. Seaman Duane Anderson set up a triage location on the boat deck. George Atlak, the cook, set up a secondary treatment center on the messdeck to care for the more critically wounded survivors. Seaman Matthew Galbally suited up in his rescue swimmer gear in case we had to send a swimmer into the water to retrieve a survivor. We rigged fire hoses in case we had to get close to the fires to recover a survivor. As we were making these preparations, a circling navy helicopter reported a liferaft. The crew was pumped, primed for action. We were ready to do anything to save those people.

 

As we approached the position of the liferaft, it was dark from the sunset and the smoke of the huge fires. Half the horizon was fire. It surreal, like something you could only imagine seeing on television. Huge tongues of flame reaching for the sky. The smell of aviation fuel and the acrid smoke from the fires, combined with the diesel exhaust from our paxman engines, made the air harsh to breathe. We saw the liferaft off of the port bow and headed for it. As we got closer, I was horrified at the sight. It was not a liferaft from a small airplane; it was an escape chute from a large airliner. This was not going to be a small SAR for a couple of people in a plane; this was a big airliner carrying hundreds of people.

 

There, right next to the escape chute, was the first victim. A man stripped to his underwear, face down in the water. We lowered the RHIB into the water to recover him. BM2 Jeff Ruggieri and Seaman Duane Anderson were the first crew. I was on the bow of the ADAK, directing Jeff where to go to find this victim. Jeff pulled the RHIB alongside and helped Duane pull him aboard. I could see Jeff and Duane begin to pull, but then stop and let the victim slide back into the water. It is a very difficuLT thing, emotionally, to be in such a small boat (15 ft long) with a dead person, and I thought this is what Jeff and Duane were going through. I yelled to Jeff to do his job and get that guy on board. Jeff yelled back that he couldn’t, he didn’t have a head. We left him to search for any possible survivors.

 

Soon we came to a huge debris field. There were literally millions of pieces of debris everywhere. Most pieces were unrecognizable, but I could tell what some of the larger pieces were. A piece of the tail section, a row of red seats, and a section of the overhead baggage compartment. And wherever I looked I saw the honeycombed pieces of bulkhead.

 

And there were bodies. In this debris field there were bodies, and parts of bodies, everywhere. Some still had their clothes on, but most had some or all of their clothes ripped off. Many were horribly burned or torn apart. This is when it began to hit me that there was little chance of any survivors. Jeff, in the RHIB, came into the same debris field, alongside the ADAK, and began recovering bodies.

 

There was a larger RHIB there from CG Station Shinnecock already looking for survivors and picking up bodies. When they came alongside the ADAK, I recognized the coxswain as BM2 Rick Freese, a buddy of mine I had gone to a school with. He already had some bodies on board and asked if we could put them on our deck. We rigged our stokes litter on our crane and started hoisting the first of the bodies from Rick’s RHI. The first victim to come on board was a large man who still had his black pants on. His torso had been badly burned and had skin peeling off from his arms. The second body was a young lady, late teens to early twenties with dark hair; she had her clothes ripped off when she impacted the water. I couldn’t look at the third victim, or the fourth, or the fifth.  I told the rest of the crew not to look at the victims’ faces so they would not “personalize” this tragedy.

 

The crew of the ADAK worked seamlessly bringing these victims aboard. As victims were brought on board, we would take them out of the litter and place them in a sheet on the stern. The crew treated each victims body as if they were sacred, giving each victim the honor they deserved. As we kept bringing more and more victims on board through the night, we had to strip the sheets off of our racks to cover the victims. Eventually, to preserve room on deck, we had to stack the victims’ bodies on top of each other, covering each with a sheet or blanket. As the night ran on, we all became like robots, unfeeling and without emotions. Just doing what needed to be done to bring broken body after broken body aboard.

 

Rick left to go search for more victims, and just maybe for a survivor. All we wanted to do was to find one survivor; one survivor would make all of this worth it. I had deaLT with death on many occasions before this night, but never in this magnitude. There has to be some kind of upside to all of this, I just feLT like I had to find it. As Rick was leaving to search for more, Jeff was coming alongside with more victims in the RHIB.

 

We lowered the crane hook and hoisted the RHIB to the deck level so we would not have to hoist each body aboard. Jeff and Duane came out of the boat visibly shaken. Jeff was an experienced Boatswain Mate and had seen death before, but never at this magnitude. With Duane it was different. He had only been in the Coast Guard for a year and these were the first bodies he had recovered. I told both of them to go to the messdeck, but they said they were okay and wanted to help on deck.

 

The next two victims we brought on board were women, and both still had their clothing on them. Neither woman had any obvious injuries or disfigurements. Except for their pale, dead skin, it looked like they could be asleep as we laid them on top of the other victims, and then covered each with a sheet.

 

Jeff again volunteered to take the RHIB to continue the search for survivors, and this time he took Gunners Mate, Ed Ward, as his crewman. After launching the RHIB again, I went to the bridge to brief the Captain. On the bridge it was crazy. By now there were literally hundreds of other boats in the area trying to help with the search for survivors, and recovery of victims. The quartermasters were trying to plot the positions of victims that these small boats were giving us. LTJG Marko Broz, the new executive officer of the ship, was on his first patrol with us. Sometime during the night the Captain had blessed him as qualified, and then gave him the deck and conn. On his first watch as the XO, LTJG Broz would keep the deck and conn for almost 16 hours.

 

I was making my way back down to the deck when I noticed there was glitter over the entire deck. Everything that was wet was covered with what appeared to be make-up glitter. Later I found out that the doomed flight was carrying crates of magicians’ glitter for a circus in France. To this day, I still don’t like the sight of glitter.

 

Jeff was coming back, with more victims in the RHIB. Once again, we lowered the crane hook and hoisted the RHIB up to the deck level. But as the hoisting straps came tight, they were pulled up through the mass of bodies that were piled into the front of the RHIB. I could tell by the look on Jeff’s face as he stepped out of the boat that he needed a break. Jeff was an experienced and dependable man, but he had reached his limits. Ed also looked as if he had been living a nightmare. I got them both out of the boat and told them to go to the messdeck and take a break while we unloaded the victims.

 

EM1 Rob Hill and I climbed into the RHIB to try to untwist the bodies from the hoisting straps and get the victims bodies aboard the ADAK. As I stepped into the RHIB my foot was immediately immersed in the cold water standing on the deck of the RHIB. The weight of the victims’ bodies had kept the bow of the boat from rising enough for the water to drain out the back. I looked down just as a searchlight was aimed our way, and saw my foot in eight inches of blood red water. A fleeting thought went through my mind that this blood could contain infectious pathogens, but I didn’t have any time to worry about it, and my boot was already full of the bloody water. I yelled up to Seaman Robert O’Brien, who was on the flying bridge, not to shine the spotlight towards me again.

 

The victim on top was a very large woman with no clothes remaining. She had no head, her torso was split in two down the middle, and she had a jagged section of her femur sticking straight up and out of her leg. To get her out of the RHIB, I had to reach over her and try to roll her onto a sheet that Rob was trying to push under her. Each time I reached over her I would scrape the palm of my hand against the jagged end of her femur.   And each time, whatever part of her I had grabbed hold of would begin to tear from the rest of her body and I would have to let go. No matter what we tried, we could not get her untangled from the RHIB hoisting strap.

 

Eventually, we had to lower the RHIB back into the water, get her broken body untangled from the hoisting strap, and then raise the RHIB to the deck level again. As we again raised the RHIB to the deck level, I stepped aboard with Rob and pushed the pieces of her body onto the sheet to be carried onto the ADAK with the rest of the victim’s bodies. As she was being carried onto the ADAK, I looked at her. She was on the sheet, lying on her back, but her torso was torn from her neck to her waist. The right side of her body was twisted around and her head, which was still attached to this side, was facing down. That sight of her mangled body made me vomit. I ran to the port side, away from the RHIB, and vomited overboard. I looked up to the bridge and saw the Captain watching me, and got back to work. After what seemed like hours, Rob and I finally got the three other victims out of the RHIB and they were placed with the other victims on our ever-growing stack of dead.

 

I took the RHIB out next to continue our search for survivors, and to recover victims. Moving away from the deck lights of the ADAK was like entering another world. Air National Guard C-130 aircraft were operating far overhead dropping illumination flares that would burn for nearly 20 minutes, casting an eerie white light over the water. There were still patches of fire on the water, some near to us, and some very far away. The debris in the water was amazing. Some of it was destroyed beyond recognition, but then some items made it through unscathed. There was a camera, an undamaged 35-millimeter, sitting on a small flat piece of the planes bulkhead. A bible sitting on top of a suitcase, neither showed any signs of damage. A teddy bear. And more bodies.

 

When I returned to the ADAK, we unloaded more victims to be stacked on deck. Since I had left, two reserve medics had been transported from Group Moriches out to the ADAK. They had brought with them a box of body bags and wanted us to put all the bodies into the bags. This would entail examining each body and writing down if the victim were male or female, approximate age, and any obvious wounds or missing parts. As we began this grisly task, it became apparent that the medics did not plan on helping us. Instead, they were standing on the boat deck watching us from twenty-five feet away. I explained to them that my crew had seen enough, if they wanted this done they would pitch in and get their uniforms dirty. For medical professionals, they sure didn’t like working with dead bodies.

 

After bagging all of the victims, we began transferring them to a Sheriff boat who transported them onto Moriches. Overall, the ADAK had recovered seventeen victims before beginning to pick up debris. On through the night and into the next day we continued to pick up debris, which we transferred to the newly commissioned CGC Juniper, the new 225’ buoy tender. It wasn’t until late afternoon of July 18th that the ADAK was released from scene and began making her way into Sandy Hook. I had the Deck and Conn coming into Sandy Hook and remember looking at the Captain sitting in his chair. He had finally fallen asleep after being awake for over 36 hours straight.

 

The Coast Guard, along with the U.S. Navy, numerous State and County boats, and hundreds of local boaters found over 135 victims that first night. Throughout the next day, a ship would occasionally call and report finding another victim floating on the surface. Days later, Navy divers who were searching for the wreckage of the plane began bringing more victims to the surface. Eventually, the last victims were identified nearly a year later by DNA testing of tissue that was brought up by fishing vessels scouring the ocean floor with dredges. As of July 30th, 1997, of the 230 people on board TWA flight 800, only two are still unaccounted for:  Janet O’Hara of Irvington, NY, and Jean Zara of France.

 

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